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For three years, Emilie Johnson has sported a blue and gold Gaucho jersey. A few months ago, she had the opportunity to wear the coveted red, white and blue for the first time while competing for Team USA.
“It was a dream … it was incredible,” Johnson said. “Every day was filled to the max with living in the moment and soaking it all in. It really was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.”
On Sept. 27, the senior guard was chosen to be one of the twelve players to represent Team USA at the 2011 Pan American Games, a multisport competition held every four years in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“Growing up, it was always a dream to wear a USA jersey and play for [my] country,” Johnson said. “I always just thought it would be a dream. It shows that through hard work and perseverance, dreams can come true.”
Johnson was the only player selected from California and one of five guards. From UCSB, Johnson is just the fourth Gaucho to play for Team USA and the first since Kristen Mann and Lindsay Taylor in 2003.
Last season, Johnson led the Gauchos in points, assists, three-pointers, field goals, and was tied for the team lead in steals. A member of the All Big West First Team, she averaged 13.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
The Loomis, CA native was first informed of her chance to compete for our country in August. The criteria for making the team was based on several factors, including her college career, academics and work ethic.
“For her to have the opportunity is an honor for the fact that hard work was acknowledged and that’s what Emilie brings,” UCSB women’s basketball Head Coach Carlene Mitchell said. “She [paid] her dues and worked hard enough that she [deserved] to be one of those athletes.”
On Oct. 15, Johnson began training with her teammates in Houston. Three days later, the team flew to Mexico, where they practiced until they played their opening game on the 21st. From there, the squad played four games in four days.
“That first time you put on that USA jersey is just so amazing in itself and I just wanted to play hard and give it my all,” Johnson said. “I’m humbled by the opportunity to wear USA.”
The hard work paid off once again for the senior, as Johnson started every game in the tournament.
“It was an honor to start,” Johnson said. “It was an honor to have that role of [leading] my team, [setting] my teammates up and [getting] the ball inside to our posts.”
In their first matchup against Argentina, USA took a tough 58-55 loss in which the Americans failed to execute down the stretch.
“It was just experience,” Johnson said. “Argentina has a national team, so we were playing 30-year-old women and we’re college athletes.”
The next day, USA found itself stuck with a similar result, losing 75-70, which eliminated them from the medal rounds. Johnson had a solid effort, shooting 3-5 for seven points. She also tallied three steals.
“It’s just about finding your role on the team and everyone was still trying to find that role,” Johnson said. “As a point guard, I’m just trying to distribute. It’s about the team and our country.”
Finally things clicked against Mexico as USA dominated 87-58, leading by as many as 32 points at one time. Johnson continued in stride from the previous match, pouring in 10 points on 4-6 shooting, to go with five rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“The Mexico game was a highlight,” Johnson said. “It took a while for us to gel but we did by that game and really took off from there. I think if we’d had three more days of practice, we would’ve come together before and capitalized on Argentina and Puerto Rico.”
Playing for seventh place in the final game of the tournament, USA obliterated Jamaica 87-41. Trailing 9-6 in the first quarter, Johnson drained a three that sparked an 18-2 run. Johnson also tallied three assists and five rebounds in the game.
“I would’ve liked to have done better because going to the medal rounds was definitely one of our goals,” Johnson said. “The expectation for the United States is to always be in the medal rounds, so that was a little frustrating and disappointing.”
Overall, Johnson averaged five points, 1.75 assists, 3.8 rebounds, two steals and 23 minutes per game. Her biggest contribution was her defense, tying her for the team lead in total steals with eight.
“She plays hard all the time,” Mitchell said. “She does a good job of help when the ball goes into the post. She’s a high basketball IQ player.”
While USA returns home with no shiny hardware around their neck to brag about, Johnson summed up the experience as nothing less than a dream.
“It was the opportunity to play for something bigger than the game,” Johnson said, who also called being excited an understatement. “You’re playing for your country. [I was] playing for my friends, my family, my teammates, my town back home and this university.”
One of the biggest surprises for Johnson was the difference in the international game, especially the physicality. Johnson returned home with plenty of battle wounds to show off. Also unexpected for Johnson was the atmosphere.
“Something I wasn’t aware of was how intense and emotional the fans were,” Johnson said. “It really was a sixth man there and most were cheering against the United States, so it made it even more of a rowdy crowd, but I loved it.”
Johnson’s dream of playing USA basketball is rooted back to the Olympics. On her official UCSB bio, she lists Team USA’s women’s basketball team as her favorite sports team.
“I’d be up at whatever time the game was [on],” Johnson said. “I think you see another side of a player come out when they’re wearing that uniform.”
After missing 10 days with her school team, Johnson is back in Santa Barbara, practicing and playing catch-up as their season rapidly approaches. With a new head coach, the team — and its starting point guard — is still adjusting to the new system.
“I learned a ton during this experience with USA basketball, so I’m just trying to be a presence to my team and help in any way I can,” Johnson said. “I’m so thankful to Coach Mitch for giving me this opportunity.”
The Gauchos’ first official game of the season is set for Nov. 11.
“We’ll take it slow with her,” Mitchell said. “We don’t expect her to figure it out overnight and we’re still looking at Nov. 11 as what really counts. She’s just getting a feel for what her role’s going to be here.”
As the team’s starting point guard and team captain, it will probably be a big one.