Go ahead and pinch Jenna Johnson. The former Wasilla High player now at Utah State is back in her home state to play in the tournament she grew up watching every year. And the 2008-09 Alaska high school player of the year who helped Wasilla win to the 2007 state championship wants to savor every moment.
“It would be impossible to describe the emotions and feelings that I have coming back home to play at the Shootout. It is a dream come true,” she said. “All in a matter of time it went from me being that little girl in the stands looking up to those women on the court, to now me being the one to have little girls watch me.”
Utah State will face Prairie View when the 35th edition of the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout gets started Tuesday at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. The tournament, with a four-team women’s bracket and an eight-team men’s bracket, allows NCAA Division II University of Alaska Anchorage to challenge themselves against Division I opponents.
Johnson is a terrific two-way player for Utah State. Tough and athletic, the 5-foot-10 guard was voted her team’s defensive player of the year last season. But when needed to score, she can do that, too. Twice she netted 17 points in a game.
This week will be the first time she’ll play in Alaska as a collegian.
“I am very blessed to be playing in my home state so my friends and family having the opportunity to watch me play at the next level,” said Johnson, a three-time academic all-conference player in the Western Athletic Conference. “My teammates are looking forward to seeing where I come from and where I live because I constantly am talking about this beautiful state.”
Johnson comes back to the Last Frontier averaging a career-best 14 points per game. She also comes searching for her team’s first win after an 0-3 start. Utah State had its first 20-win season last year and has been to the last two NIT tournaments.
“It will be nice to make it back up Alaska, yet my team and I are coming up there for business,” she said. “We are at the beginning of the season with a new coaching staff trying to identify who we are and who we want to be.”
Still, she recognizes that Shootout games are different than other regular season games.
“I look forward to stepping foot on the floor and proving to those little girls in the stands that it is possible,” Johnson said. “If you believe in yourself and work hard, you can accomplish your dreams.”
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Although the big-name teams like Duke, North Carolina and UCLA are absent from this year’s Shootout field, quality teams with less renown remain.
In the men’s tournament, the Belmont Bruins, who open against hometown UAA at 10 p.m. Wednesday, have gone to five NCAA tournaments in the last seven years. And Belmont is just one of the four teams in the Shootout that made it to the postseason last year.
In the women’s tournament, UAA may have a chance of winning it’s own tournament for the fifth time in seven years. Although the Seawolves have been set back by two head coaching changes in the last year, UAA owns the only winning record among women's Shootout teams so far this season -- and it owns a lifetime winning record against both Utah State and North Dakota State.
Seniors Alysa Horn, a 6-foot forward averaging 13.3 points per game, and Sasha King, a 5-foot-6 guard averaging 15.7 points and 8.3 assists, lead the Seawolves.
Tuesday (first round)
6 p.m. -- Prairie View A&M (0-2) v. Utah State (0-3)
8 p.m. -- North Dakota State (2-2) v. UAA (2-1)
2:30 p.m. -- Consolation game
5 p.m. -- Championship game
Wednesday (first round)
7:30 p.m. -- UC Riverside v. Northeastern
10 p.m. -- Belmont v. UAA
Thursday (first round)
5 p.m. -- Loyola Marymount v. Oral Roberts
7:30 p.m. -- Texas State v. Charlotte
Friday (consolation semifinals and semifinals)
1 p.m. -- Belmont/UAA loser v. NU/UCR loser
3 p.m. -- ORU/LMU loser v. Charlotte/TXST loser
7 p.m. -- Belmont/UAA winner v. NU/UCR winner
9:30 p.m. -- ORU/LMU winner v. Charlotte/TXST winner
Noon -- 7th/8th-place game
2 p.m. -- 4th/6th-place game
6 p.m. -- 3rd/5th-place game
8:30 p.m. -- Championship game
Van Williams, a 20-year local sports writer and the former sports editor of the Anchorage Daily News, writes about the athletic exploits of Alaskans for the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.