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Magnificent Seven

Laura Johnson of the Bethel College women's basketball team drives to the basket during a game earlier this season. The Pilots' leading scorer on the season, Johnson was recently named the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Player of the Week.
Laura Johnson of the Bethel College women's basketball team drives to the basket during a game earlier this season. The Pilots' leading scorer on the season, Johnson was recently named the NAIA Division II Women's Basketball Player of the Week.

When Laura Johnson scored 32 points against Concordia on Dec. 31, the Bethel College guard and Millbrook native had no idea she was beginning a historic week.

"When coach (Jody Martinez) told me I'd scored 30-something, I thought, 'That's awesome," Johnson said this week. "But it didn't take long for me to forget all about that game and go on to the next one."

In "the next one," Johnson scored 24 points and had five rebounds, two assists and three steals in a 71-62 defeat of Mount Vernon Nazarene on Jan. 2. She then totaled 21 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals in an 80-71 victory over St. Francis (Ind.) on Jan. 5.

For the week of Dec. 31 to Jan. 6, Johnson averaged 25.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, three assists and three steals per game. That happened to be the first week that the NAIA chose its first Division II Women's Basketball Player of the Week for the 2012-13 season, an honor it gave to Johnson. She was also the Player of the Week for the Crossroads League and for the National Christian College Athletic Association.

"I was kind of clueless about it," Johnson said. "I knew I had a decent week because my coach was telling me I should get Player of the Week in conference. The next thing I knew, I had gotten the Christian national (award). Then my coach told me about the (NAIA) one."

Only one other player in Bethel's history, current assistant coach Natalie Young, has ever been named a NAIA Player of the Week in women's basketball.

"I don't think I realized at first how big a deal it was until I was reading the article that Bethel wrote about how the only other person from the Lady Pilots to do it was Natalie Young," Johnson said. "She's amazing. She's someone with their jersey retired. When I realized I was sharing something like this with her, I was like, 'Wow. It's a bigger deal than I realized.'"

In a Bethel release, Martinez called the NAIA honor "one of the most difficult achievements a player can earn at this level."

"I am very proud of Laura for this recognition by the NAIA," Martinez said in the release. "She has done amazing things since she has been at Bethel, especially these last two seasons, and she continues to get better each day because of her work ethic."

'A perfect journey'

After graduating from Newark High School in 2009, Johnson attended Olivet Nazarene University and played one season of basketball for the Tigers. She had also strongly considered attending Bethel out of high school, so when she decided to transfer, her choice of destination was an easy one.

"It was a combination of things," Johnson said of the decision. "I think I almost settled for Olivet because it was closer (to home). My best friend from high school went there and I got to room with her.

"Olivet was a huge part of how I got to where I am. You know what they're going to do — shoot threes all the time. That helped me a lot with my three-point shooting. I thought I would like that style of play, but once I got there I realized it wasn't my favorite. I felt like it eliminated part of my game, their style of play.

"(Martinez) had told me that if anything doesn't work out, that I had his number and could give him a call, so I did. I'm so grateful that it has all worked out the way it has."

Johnson appeared in 27 games, starting two, for Bethel in 2010-11. She averaged 2.74 points per game. By 2011-12, she emerged as the Lady Pilots' leading scorer, averaging 15.76 points per game. She started 31 of their 33 games and averaged a team-high 30 minutes per game.

That increase in responsibilities has continued into this season. She has started all 21 games and averaged a team-high 32.7 minutes per game. Her scoring is up to 20.0 points per game for a team with nobody else averaging over 11.3.

"Coach does a good job of ... monitoring how we're doing. We practice hard, but when we have busy stretches, he tries to save us for game day," Johnson said. "He talks a lot about the minutes I'm getting. But honestly, between media timeouts and our timeouts, I feel I get decent breaks."

Johnson has made 67-of-164 three-point attempts this season (40.9 percent) and is 85-for-98 (86.7 percent) from the free-throw line.

"I think it's just me putting time in," Johnson said. "My confidence is growing each game. ... I student taught last semester, so I didn't have a lot of free time. Now I'm trying to come in (and shoot) between classes whenever I can. My teammates' faith and trust in me helps, and they do a great job of getting me the ball."

Ten regular-season games remain for the Lady Pilots before the Crossroads Tournament. Johnson hopes their season, and her career, extends beyond that.

"A huge thing is if we can get to the NAIA Nationals again and win our first game. That's definitely the goal," Johnson said. "Last year we lost 11 games, and six of them came from this point in the season on, so finishing strong is definitely a goal.

"It's just great having the support of my family in going farther away. I love when they get to come to games, even though the drive out here isn't the greatest," Johnson added. "And I wouldn't be where I am if it wasn't for Christ. I never thought in a million years I could be at this level. I think him for it all. It's been a blessing — a perfect journey — how I got here."

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