Kalispell's Tiana Johnson a 'settling influence,' leads Idaho to first-round Big Sky Tournament win

Posted at 10:52 PM, Mar 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-08 02:01:02-05

BOISE, Idaho—Tiana Johnson's impact for the Idaho women's basketball team couldn't have been more clear than it was Monday evening.

The Kalispell Flathead graduate dropped 18 points and grabbed six rebounds as the No. 6 Vandals (13-17) defeated No. 11 Portland State 75-52 in the opening round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament at Idaho Central Arena.

Johnson's teammates found her early as the 6-foot-2 post scored three of the Vandal's first four field goals in the game, including a second-chance jumper that tied it 11-11 with 5:13 left in the first quarter. From there it was all Idaho as the Vandals ran away from the Vikings (5-24) the remainder of the game to advance to Tuesday's quarterfinal round.

For Johnson, a senior who transferred to Idaho after four years at Sacramento State, it was just her second career win in the Big Sky Tournament. And in just one year with the program, Johnson's impact has left a resounding impression on Idaho head coach, Jon Newlee.

"TJ's been fantastic. One of my most favorite kids to coach ever and she's only been here a year," Newlee said. "Her attitude has been fantastic from day one, she bought into what we were doing from day one. She's been a team leader. He experience and maturity has been fantastic and a settling influence for the young ones we have. We have a lot of new players and I think she's been a huge key to do that.

"I knew that in our system TJ was going to be way better than she was at Sac, her numbers, just because of our style just because of the way we like to play and the way I had planned to use her so when she told me, 'Yes I'll come,' believe you me that was a happy day for Jon Newlee."

Idaho has won eight of its last 10 games as the Vandals have found a stride over the last month thanks in large part to Johnson's impact.

"I think we've just kind of focused on what we can each do to help the team get the win," Johnson said. "Can I rebound, can I shoot, do I need to score? Do I need to play good defense? Just focusing on each other instead of ourselves and we enjoy being around each other and playing with each other so that helps."

And Johnson has done just that. Just ask teammate and starting guard Allison Kirby who played with Johnson for fives years in AAU basketball for North Idaho Elite. The duo knew each other well, and Kirby knew her former AAU teammate would be a perfect fit for Idaho's program.

"She actually called me asking me about the program and I was like, 'Yeah dude you'd fit in.' Shooters shoot and I knew she was a shooter from AAU," Kirby said. "She shot the lights out so when I found out that and then I was coming back too I was like, dang, I'm so happy I get to play with her."

"She fits into the style of play so well. Just playing fast, playing free, shooting when you're open. Honestly, she won so many shooting drills this year. She just shoots the lights out and I thought she'd fit in great because we love to shoot from three."

Johnson, Kirby and the rest of the Vandals will take on No. 3 Southern Utah (18-11) on Tuesday in the quarterfinal round at 8 p.m.