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Seniors have helped elevate Utah State women's basketball

Published March 1, 2013 11:27 pm

College hoops • Christensen, Johnson have led potential drive to NCAA Tournament.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Logan • From here on out, Devyn Christensen will blink at her own name atop Aggie greats.

She's Utah State's all-time leading scorer, with 1,422 points and counting. It's still strange to her, to have already left her distinctive handprint on the program when there's so much she still wants to do.

And to the senior guard, it shouldn't be just her name at the top of the list.

"I just like it because it's about our team and our class," she said. "My teammates have created baskets for me, they've made steals that have led to baskets. It's a record for all of us. That's something that's lost in the record books a bit."

With a Senior Night game coming Saturday against UT Arlington, the Aggies' seniors will take a bow. Standing out among them will be Christensen and Jenna Johnson, two players who helped build Utah State into a WAC contender.

The program won a record 21 games last season. This year, they've won a record 12 conference games. A preseason nod as the top WAC team was humbling for the seniors who remember coming to a program seeking to build something special.

"I didn't want to be a part of something that was already built," says Johnson, the team's second leading scorer, who is averaging double digits for the first time this year. "I wanted to make a difference, to build it myself. It's kind of unbelievable what we've done. I wish I weren't a senior."

The Aggies are a half-game behind Seattle, positioning themselves for a possible regular-season title. Christensen and Johnson have been at the center of the charge, turning a 2-8 start into a potential NCAA Tournament team.

They complement each other in an intrinsic way: If Christensen is the smooth-shooting guard who is always hunting for the big shot, Johnson is the rugged forward and defender who finds the steal or rebound to feed her. It goes the other way too, but the duo definitely have distinct indentities.

"Devyn is the face of our program — in three years here, she's scored a lot of points," coach Jerry Finkbeiner says. "As much as Devyn is the face of the program, Jenna's the heart, lungs and stomach. She's the grinder, really a blue-collar type player. I kind of miss these seniors already."

It hasn't always been pretty: The Aggies have played five overtime games, going 4-1 in extra basketball contests. In six of their games, one of the teams has taken the lead in the final seconds. They've needed a little magic to get to where they are, and it's made them stronger.

"I hope it's not coming down to the last shot every time — it makes my stomach hurt," Johnson said. "But when we get in those situations, we kind of expect to win. We're getting that presence under pressure. We're used to it. It's kind of that dig-deep mentality."

Mental fortitude has been a theme on and off the court for this batch of Aggies, especially when adjusting to a new coaching staff. A rocky preseason wasn't exactly conducive to optimism for the rest of the season, but an open dialogue with new coach Finkbeiner helped smooth things out.

Finkbeiner came from Oral Roberts with a mind to instill his running-and-gunning system. With feedback from his players, he made adjustments he calls a "downshift" to better encompass their talents.

The Aggies, used to a slower system under former coach Raegan Pebley, also had to keep in mind that they needed to adjust as well.

"We had a new coaching staff, half of our team was newcomers, and we had to remember that we weren't a team that had played together for years," Christensen said. "We couldn't get lost in the confusion and frustration. I think we had the mental toughness to let it play out."

The results have been much more satisfying and certainly memorable.

There was Christensen's last-second 3-pointer at Denver that muscled out a double-overtime game. Johnson scored with five seconds left to knock off Louisiana Tech on the road. Even freshman Makenlee Williams got in on the fun, beating New Mexico State on a buzzer-beater.

The seniors are starting to move on with their lives: Christensen is getting married in April, planning her wedding as the Aggies try to march toward the Big Dance, and fellow senior Pualei Furtado will be her maid of honor. Johnson is looking to finish the year strong then will see what her options are.

But beyond their careers as Aggies, they see a bright future ahead. Anytime the underclassmen hit big shots or play well in key moments, they see the program going toward a future they helped build.

An NCAA Tournament bid would be a nice way to cap it all.

"It's a goal we've had for the last three years, and we've always fallen short," Christensen said. "We're so close. We've had so many close games with miracle moments. It's kind of contagious. Once you get a few, you're like, 'Yeah, let's get some more.' "


Twitter: @kylegoon




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