Sports Odds & Ends
There are approximately 100 African American and other student-athletes of color this school year at the University of Minnesota. In an occasional series throughout the 2023-24 school year and sports year, the MSR will highlight many of these players. This week: Gopher freshman basketball player Ayianna ‘AJ’ Johnson
Ayianna “AJ” Johnson has impressed both her coaches and teammates since she arrived at Gopherland. The 6-foot-3-inch freshman forward runs the floor well, hits the boards hard, and might be the team’s strongest player.
She definitely has impressed this longest-tenured Gopher beat reporter. The first-year player is a load to handle. Johnson’s 19 points off the bench against Chicago State last month clinched the deal for me.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot just coming here,” said Johnson after a recent game. Originally signed to play at West Virginia, the Jefferson, Wisconsin native reversed course and signed with Minnesota shortly after Dawn Plitzuweit was hired earlier this year to coach the Gophers.
“She’s working on an individual skill,” Coach P said of Johnson, one of seven Minnesota freshmen now tied with Wisconsin as the youngest team in the Big Ten with 10 underclassmen. “Obviously she has a level of athleticism that is second to none.”
In high school, Johnson was a five-sport athlete: track and field (state champion discus thrower), football (quarterback and offensive line), wrestling, golf and basketball, where she was named all-state honorable mention, averaging nearly 17 points and 11.5 rebounds her senior year.
“I had only played two seasons of AAU. So I didn’t have a whole lot of skill,” continued Johnson.
Asked which of the five sports she participated in was her favorite, Johnson replied, “Honestly, I’d probably say track just because it was individual. Just knowing that no matter how successful you were, you’re still adding [points] to the team [score]… You were representing your team,”
Football and wrestling probably are next on her favorite-sports list. “I was always in male-dominated sports,” AJ admitted. “I was a little aggressive. When I started playing basketball, everyone just thought I was very aggressive… I was not used to female sports.”
At times Johnson’s limited basketball experience shows. But the tough-minded forward makes up for that with her grit and strength.
“I’m a very good rim-runner. I’m a pretty good rebounder,” said Johnson of her positives. “Things I need to work on—just be more confident with the ball when I get in the post and being able to post-up better.
“I know my ceiling is very high. So I just need to keep working, working on the little things,” said Johnson. “I have an awesome team and amazing coaches.”
Being from a border state, Johnson’s loyalty will be sorely tested when Wisconsin and Minnesota meet each other later in Big Ten play. “I grew up a diehard Badger fan,” she said.
Banham hopes to stay
Rachel Banham is the lone holdover on Dawn Plitzuweit’s first-year staff. The former Gopher great and current Minnesota Lynx was hired last year by former coach Lindsay Whalen.
“Obviously, it’s so different than last year. But it’s been fun to learn a new system,” said Banham. “Being able to interact with the girls and help on the court, that’s been so much fun for me.”
The 5-foot-9-inch Banham just completed her fourth season with Minnesota and is scheduled to become a free agent this offseason. She told the MSR she wants to stay in Minnesota.
“I love Minnesota, everybody knows that about me,” the eight-year veteran guard said. “I love this organization, but I definitely will talk to everybody and just feel out and see what’s best for my future and the rest of my career.”