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Monday, June 27, 2022
Nicole Bauman

Wisconsin's collection of talented guards, highlighted by Nicole Bauman, will need to regain its shooting form against the Spartans. 

Johnson forgoes WNBA for one last chance with UW

For Michala Johnson, the training room became the place she resided during games almost as much as the bench. Thanks to two ACL injuries, the sixth-year senior has become as versed in the anatomy of a knee as the Wisconsin playbook. Twice, she has watched her team suffer on the floor knowing full well she could do very little to affect the outcomes of their games.

“The hardest part is just having to go through it again. Always being in the training room, when I want to be out, watching practice or being a part of the team,” Johnson said of her latest ACL injury, which kept her out of most of the 2014-’15 season. 

Johnson is poised to return for what will surely be her final season in Madison. Yet, for Johnson, coming off of another major injury has made her nerves more like an incoming freshman than a player on the precipice of going pro.

“It’s more so harder mentally,” Johnson said of her rehab. 

“Just being able to trust myself again. Just get myself in basketball shape. [Because] it’s different when you’re just like running up and down, but then when you’re running and jumping and stomping, I just have to mentally prepare myself to say you can do it, to push through.”

Johnson was able to work out in the weight room with her teammates this summer but was unable to participate in any contact drills. Yet, head coach Bobbie Kelsey has no doubts Johnson will be able to look like the All-Big Ten forward that led the Badgers in both points and rebounds two seasons ago.

“She requires a double. She’s a load to handle one-on-one,” Kelsey said.

Last year’s leading scorer, senior guard Nicole Bauman, echoed the impact Johnson’s return will have this season. “We’re glad to have her back,” Bauman said. “It’s obviously gonna help guards as well, they’re gonna have to double her in the post. So it’ll be good so we can get it out and get more shots.”

But Johnson almost didn’t come back this season. Not because of injury, but because, much to everyone’s surprise, Johnson was picked in the third round of last year’s WNBA draft by the New York Liberty.

“I mean it caught me by surprise because it was around the time I was trying to come back from my medical redshirt. But, when they drafted me, I was very surprised, but I was so happy ‘cause that’s always been my dream goal to be able to play and get drafted by the WNBA. And for them to grant me the opportunity, I was very happy and thankful for that,” Johnson said.

Even though she was both euphoric and thankful the Liberty drafted her, she never truly considered playing in the WNBA this past season.

“I wanted to come back because I knew I wasn’t gonna be ready to play overseas or play in the WNBA, so I figured that taking the medical redshirt would help me finish my grad school program as well as come back stronger,” Johnson explained.

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The Liberty still own her draft rights, so come next season she’ll graduate from the Kohl Center to Madison Square Garden, an idea that made Johnson smile and laugh in pleasure. Yet in the present, Johnson recognizes the importance of regaining her strength and physicality on the college stage.

She won’t be suiting up this Sunday when the Badgers play an exhibition game against Minnesota State, though. That’s because, according to Kelsey, there isn’t a whole lot to gain from these games.

“Basically you don’t want anybody to get hurt. They’re good previews for what you need to work on. Good teaching material,” Kelsey said.

Bauman echoed her coach’s thoughts, adding that games against Minnesota State or UW-Eau Claire next Wednesday are ways to practice the “little things, boxing out, talking, you know things we need to do to prepare us for the more difficult games in the future.”

Johnson’s return is no small thing, which is why both Badger fans and players will have to wait until the Badgers open the regular season against Louisiana Tech to see Johnson in game action. Both Johnson’s return, as well as the return of four other players from injuries or via transfer, will help the Badgers improve their late-game execution. Last season in 14 of the Badgers’ 20 losses, they led by single digits with less than nine minutes to play. 

“The ones that played last year had to play the whole game, every game. They’re mentally tired, so it’s not that they don’t know what to do. They’re just worn out. You can’t sub ‘em,” Kelsey said. 

With Johnson’s decision to not turn pro but rather return to Madison, the Badgers will likely fare far better down the stretch this season. That’ll go a long way in improving their record, something Johnson said is her goal for this year.

“Win more games than we did last year,” Johnson said. “Instead of losing really close games, just beating those teams; I know we can do it.”

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