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Record-breaking Leah Johnson not done yet at West Chester

03/04/2024, 3:00pm EST
By Jeff Griffith

By Jeff Griffith (@hooplove215)

When Leah Johnson walked into West Chester University’s basketball practice facilities on Feb. 8, she was posed a challenging question. She didn’t have an answer.

“Does it feel different?” 

Damien Blair, WCU’s head men’s coach, likely knew what her response would be to his inquiry. 

As a former player during the 1990s, and the current all-time career scoring leader for the Golden Rams’ men’s program, it’s a safe bet that he knew what kind of emotions Johnson felt when she broke the women’s record during the previous night’s 77-66 win over Shepherd. 

So, when Johnson replied, “Nope, not yet,” she said that Blair had his response queued up.

“Give it 10 years.”

West Chester senior Leah Johnson is the school all-time leader in points and assists. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

According to Johnson, a four-year starter who now holds the West Chester University records for both points and assists, Blair’s advice was pretty apt for her career as a whole.

It’s almost over, but she hasn’t thought that much about it. She hasn’t fully put it in perspective. She’s focused on what’s left, not what’s after.

“I laughed (when Blair said that),” she said. “I guess in 10 years, I’ll be able to reflect. My basketball career will be over, I’ll have, like, a job, and I can go back and tell people about all the games and all the hard work.”

“Being in the season and trying to win a championship,” she added, “I kind of haven’t let my mind go there.”

Were one to look back on Johnson’s career, though, they’d have a hard time not being impressed by the 5-foot-5 guard out of Notre Dame High School in New Jersey. She’s accounted for 1,718 points, 602 assists, 682 rebounds and 278 steals during her time at West Chester.

She broke 2016 grad Brittany Sicinski’s record for points (1,624) and 1990 grad Colleen McNamara’s record for assists (509), which stood for 34 years until Johnson surpassed it against East Stroudsburg on Jan. 13. She’s three away from becoming second on the program’s all-time steals list and ranks ninth in rebounding.

Since entering the program in 2019, Johnson has been the model of consistent production and steady improvement. Johnson has started in 114 of her 116 games played, and has never averaged fewer than 11 ppg. As a senior, currently averaging 14.8 ppg,  she hasn’t scored fewer than 10 points in any contest. 

She improved her scoring average and assists average in each of her first three seasons — Johnson had a staggering 6.4 apg last season, which has dipped ever-so-slightly to 5.9 this year, still ranking seventh nationally with Jefferson’s Morgan Robinson at the top of the list.

Tack on a handful of triple-doubles, a pair of All-PSAC First Team honors, and multiple All-America nods, and you’ve got yourself a pretty illustrious career, quantifiably speaking.

“I feel a sense of maturity in all aspects,” Johnson said. “I’ve been put in really tough situations, so I’m ready for anything. I think I’ve just matured.” 

Though Johnson’s career didn’t get off to the perfect start. It improved over time, both in the micro and the macro. 

As a freshman, Johnson was thrust into an early starting role. She was given what she referred to as a “long leash,” and was encouraged to get comfortable taking shots. She took, admittedly, a lot of bad ones. 

But all the while, she was putting in the work. 

“I was in the gym as much as possible, for hours at night,” she said. “I did whatever they asked. If they wanted me to guard the best player.”

Johnson and the Golden Rams will host a PSAC quarterfinal on Wednesday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Meanwhile, the Rams’ results were nothing special, either. Over the first two full seasons of Johnson’s career, West Chester’s women’s basketball team struggled, to an out-of-the-ordinary degree as a generally-competitive program. 

As a freshman, Johnson’s squad went 9-18. Her second season? 9-19.

But as Johnson transitioned into her junior year, things began to shift, and it showed up in the results. From year two to year three, Johnson’s shooting percentage went up seven points, and her assist-to-turnover ratio increased from about 1.5:1 to over 2:1. 

West Chester’s success followed suit, as the Rams pumped out a 24-9 season and ran their way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen.

Johnson was clear; the latter wouldn’t have happened without the former.

“If I don’t have the two years of all the losses and two years of putting up bad shots, and taking bad shots, I don’t think I’d turn into this success the last two years,” she said. “It shaped me into a leader and an even better point guard.”

And now, she’s enjoying the spoils. Throughout Johnson’s senior year, she’s posted a ridiculous 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is sixth nationally among players with at least 100 assists. 

And West Chester is having another fantastic season. The Rams are 23-5 heading into Wednesday’s PSAC quarterfinal, which they will host at Hollinger Field House. West Chester is also ranked No. 7 in the Division II Atlantic Region, looking poised to enter a second-consecutive NCAA Tournament.

The goal, of course is to make one last deep run in both postseason tournaments. She’s got the school records, now she’s focused on taking the program to new heights. 

“I want to win a PSAC Championship,” Johnson said. “We don’t have one in program history. We have a couple of semifinals and finals appearances, but no hardware. Jumping into the NCAA Tournament, hopefully win the region — we have multiple region appearances, but no hardware.”

“Definitely being able to bring something back to West Chester is the main goal,” she added.

Regardless of how it ends on the court, when Johnson looks back on her career, she’ll have pages and pages of tales worth telling. 

Odds are, whenever that may be, she’ll enjoy re-reading it from cover to cover. 

“It definitely shows that hard work pays off,” she said. “I didn’t score a thousand points in high school, so coming into college, I had that blank slate to write a story.”

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” she concluded, “but it kind of feels like a storybook ending.”

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