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Johnson finishes career at Delaware on top

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That’s the question most Queens residents asked Cindy Johnson when she signed with Delaware to play basketball four years ago.

“People always ask me why I came here,” said Johnson of the mid-major Division I school in the...

By Domenico Montanaro

NEWARK, Del. - Dela-where?

That’s the question most Queens residents asked Cindy Johnson when she signed with Delaware to play basketball four years ago.

“People always ask me why I came here,” said Johnson of the mid-major Division I school in the obscure state — only two hours south of New York City — that has been the butt of jokes from “Wayne’s World” to “Friends.”

“On my visit, I loved the environment,” Johnson said. “I felt I could help right away.”

Johnson’s storied collegiate career wrapped up March. 16 in a 76-57 loss to North Carolina State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. She scored a game-high 20 points in the Blue Hens loss.

“There’s no doubt in my mind, she is the best player to put on a University of Delaware uniform,” said Blue Hens fifth-year coach Tina Martin.

But the culmination of her career was a cry from its meek beginning.

The Blue Hens went 6-21 her freshman year, finishing last in the America East Conference. Johnson — known as “CJ” to her friends and teammates — was used to winning, leading August Martin to three city titles, and didn’t cope well with her first losing season.

Thoughts of quitting even ran through her mind. In fact, she said she’d had serious conversations with her father about what they could do for her to stay in school once she lost her athletic scholarship.

But with the support of her family and her roommate and teammate, Danielle Leyfert, Johnson stuck with it.

“It’s tough for any freshman,” said the 5-foot-8 Johnson, who was born in Guyana. “I’m glad I stayed.”

Delaware is glad she stayed, too.

Johnson accomplished just about everything any player at any level could ever hope to accomplish, helping turn around the wayward program.

Her quickness, guts and game sense helped her shatter the all-time Delaware scoring mark of 1,560 points. She finished her career with 1,675, averaging 14.8 points per game, which is the third all-time average.

This year, Johnson set the record for most points in a single season (520), averaging 17.3 points per game. She is also first player to ever score 500 points in back-to-back seasons. She is first all-time in field goals made (647), fifth in steals (182), third in minutes played (32.8 per game) and third in free throws attempted and made (360-502, 72 percent).

And that’s on top of this season being selected to the first team all-conference, conference player of the week four times, conference tournament outstanding player and team MVP.

In the summer of 1998 she was even a member of the Guyana national team that qualified for the Pan Am Games.

But all of the individual glory is of little importance to her. What really matters is that she helped transform Delaware from a joke into a basketball power.

The Blue Hens went 16-11 after her sophomore year, going from 10th in the conference to fifth.

The next year they went 21-8, finished third in the conference and lost in the semifinals in the conference tournament in Vermont to Vermont.

This season, there was no question.

Delaware went 26-5 (17-1 America East) and received the school’s first NCAA bid and Top 25 vote.

After winning the regular season title, the Blue Hens had to go back into hostile territory in Vermont to win the conference tournament.

Johnson and her teammates pulled it off, finally getting the elusive NCAA bid, despite needing overtime to beat Hartford in the semis and overcoming an 18-point deficit to beat host Vermont in the title game in its crackerjack-box size gym.

“We were not going home without the hardware,” Johnson said.

The Blue Hens moved on to play out their dream in the NCAA Tournament.

It didn’t matter that their opponent was fourth-seeded North Carolina State, an Atlantic Coast Conference power which had beaten No. 1 seed Duke.

“It was icing on the cake,” Johnson said. “Playing in Raleigh was great. It was intense. There were no butterflies because we went in with the idea we had nothing to lose.”

Delaware stuck with the Wildcats for much of the first half and even clung to a 20-18 advantage with nine minutes to go in the half. But NC State’s size proved too much and the Blue Hens fell 76-57.

“I’m happy with my career,” said Johnson, who scored 20 points against NC State. “It’s unbelievable actually. [Setting the scoring record] wasn’t one of the goals. As a team, going from 10th to first is overwhelming. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.

“It’s great to be thought of as the best team in school history.”

Coming from Queens didn’t hurt.

“It helped me become more aggressive,” said Johnson, an English major. “Since coming to Delaware, I’ve improved in every area possible.”

“She was a great athlete coming out of high school, but the skill level was not where it needed to be to be a Player of the Year candidate or first-team All-Conference,” Martin added. “But she has improved her skills and worked very hard. The finished product is obviously a champion.”

She’s improved so much that she’s received more than a handful of tryout invitations from WNBA teams.

But for now Johnson said she is concentrating on graduating in May. After that she said she would like to play basketball for a couple of years — if possible — and then go to law school.

“We’re going to miss CJ,” Martin said. “She should be proud she started the tradition.”

Reach contributing writer Domenico Montanaro by e-mail at TimesLedgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 130.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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