TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though they didn’t grow up too far apart, one near Mobile and the other outside of Montgomery, there was no rivalry before arriving on the University of Alabama campus.
There certainly was the potential, though.
When guard Cierra Johnson was at Blount High School, she was a four-time Class 6A first-team All-State selection, and regular contender for the state’s Miss Basketball Award.
In 2016, she was beat out by forward Jasmine Walker, who at Jefferson Davis High was the first from a Montgomery public school to be named the state’s best female player, and second ever from the community (joining former Crimson Tide forward Leslie Claybrook).
Neither enrolled at Alabama out of high school. Yet they’re the Crimson Tide’s top two scorers this season.
“She was unstoppable,” Walker said about her new teammate.
Most basketball fans in Tuscaloosa are a little more familiar with Johnson’s story because she’s been playing in the area longer. The highly-touted prospect had every intention of immediately joining the Crimson Tide only didn’t qualify academically.
So she first played down the road at Shelton State.
“Not qualifying out of high school, having to take a different route when the first thing on you mind is going D1, it’s kind of disappointing,” she said about experience.
While a lot of junior college players can sort of lose their way, being so close to the university was a constant reminder and extra motivation for Johnson. Kristy Curry made sure to treat her like she was already in the Crimson Tide program as much as possible (and allowed per NCAA rules).
The product of Eight Mile thrived. While leading Shelton State to a 36-1 record, Johnson was named the junior college player of the year, and the Junior College Athlete of the Year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association.
As a sophomore she averaged 22 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Both seasons the Bucs reached the NJCAA Final Four, the third straight for coach Madonna Thompson.
“Excepting my role as a leader, maturity, faster than I expected,” Johnson said were her biggest challenges at Alabama. “Just learning how to separate business from [my personal side].”
Meanwhile, Walker led Jefferson Davis to back-to-back Class 7A titles in 2015 and 2016, and named the state tournament MVP both years. As a senior she averaged 19.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game while collecting 13 double-doubles, and finished her career with 1,900 points and 908 rebounds.
Walker went the other direction, heading to Florida State. After playing in just five games as a freshman, she opted for something else.
“I took a path that I wasn’t satisfied with, so I came to Alabama looking for something else,” she said. “I’m glad I came.”
So are Crimson Tide fans, who are hoping that after some serious bad luck and frustrating years, including everything from injuries to missing key players due to a variety of reasons, Alabama is ready to make some real noise in the SEC.
Kristy Curry at Alabama
Year, Overall; SEC record
2013-14 14-16; 7-9
2014-15 13-19; 2-14
2015-16 15-16; 4-12 (WNIT bid)
2016-17 22-14; 5-11 (WNIT bid)
2017-18 20-14; 7-9 (WNIT bid)
That’s despite enduring another setback when starting point guard Jordan Lewis suffered a season-ending wrist injury in December, which would have been disastrous for a lot of teams. Alabama’s answer was to slide Johnson over from shooting guard just in time for SEC play.
“Our teams always seem to respond,” Curry said.
By consistently reaching double digits she’s averaging 14.5 points per game (and rising), to go with 62 assists in 21 games. Her 4.8 rebounds top all guards and is third on the Crimson Tide.
Meanwhile, Walker is averaging 13.8 points and a team-high 7.2 rebounds. She also leads the Crimson Tide in 3-point shooting (37 of 97, .381), which is also on the rise.
The revamped lineup has shown flashes of its potential, but the next step is to be consistent. Alabama (11-10 overall, 3-5 SEC) knocked off No. 20 Tennessee for the fifth straight time, and won at Georgia for the first time since 1997. But in between it squandered an opportunity against LSU and also lost at Arkansas.
Sunday’s the big test, when Alabama hosts No. 6 Mississippi State (noon, SEC Network).
“Time,” Curry said is the key. “When you’re as inexperienced as we are, and as young as we are, it just takes time. It takes a lot of patience. It takes a lot of positive. It takes a lot of being honest with them, and not enabling them, and just finding that happy medium.
“The thing that’s been interesting about this group of kids is their chemistry. Not that it’s been bad before, but they’re really a neat group of kids. They really care about each other and they really get along. They really enjoy playing. … The chemistry and the camaraderie is really, really easy with this group. It comes easy to them.”
Plus it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of developing players who were up for Miss Basketball in the state, along with senior guard Shaquera Wade. She won at Huntsville High School in 2015, the year before Walker edged Johnson in the voting.
“I wish we would have played against each other,” Johnson said.