A little more than three minutes remained in the consolation game at the National Junior College Athletic Association women’s basketball tournament when Cierra Johnson got fouled. Shelton State Community College coach Madonna Thompson called her player over and told her she needed to make the free throws.
“We’re up by like 30 points,” Johnson said. “I was confused.”
Johnson hit both foul shots, giving her 47 points in the game to set a tournament single-game record. Her 135 points also set a record for points in the tournament.
The sophomore, a product of Blount High School in Eight Mile, was honored as national player of the year and named first-team All-American. Now the University of Alabama signee has been selected as state Junior College Athlete of the Year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association.
She saved her best for last. Even though Shelton State was coming off its only defeat in the Final Four on the way to a 36-1 record, she could have broken 50 points in the consolation game had Thompson not taken her out after the free throws.
“She didn’t want it to seem like we were being greedy,” Johnson said. “Most people ask me why I went so hard in that game being it was a third-place game, but I just gave everything I had. It was like I hit everything. It did feel kind of magical.”
Johnson, who won NJCAA Region XXII Player of the Year honors in both her seasons at Shelton State, averaged 22 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists as a sophomore. She finished first in the Alabama Community College Conference in minutes per game (26), 3-pointers (77), 3-point percentage (42.8), free throws (142), free throw percentage (84.7), field goals (287), field goal percentage (60.4) and points per game.
She credits her time at Shelton State with helping her bounce back from falling short of qualifying academically for eligibility at a four-year school out of high school.
“It changed me as a person,” she said. “I developed more: my skill set, personality-wise. I just thank God for giving me a chance to change myself and prove myself to the world.
“Even if your dreams don’t come out the first time, keep trying. I am a true witness that this was probably the best thing that ever happened to me. Most people don’t believe in going to junior college: I hope my story can help them see what a blessing it can be.”
Thompson felt blessed to get to coach the 5-foot-10 guard.
“Cierra’s just one of those that just absolutely loves basketball,” the coach said. “It’s what she does in her free time. It’s what she talks about, it’s the clothes she wears every day. It’s what makes her happy and she just naturally does it.”
That final game was in part a response to the Lady Buccaneers’ only defeat, which came the night before in the national semifinal.
“The season was perfect for everyone,” Johnson said. “Everyone got a chance for exposure. We went further than last year, our record being better. Academically, athletics, everything was just perfect.
“Sadly, we couldn’t get the national championship, but somebody has to win and somebody has to lose.”
Said Thompson, “She knew it was her last time wearing a Shelton State uniform. We were all upset we were even playing in the (consolation) game, I told everybody to make the best of it, let’s go out and have some fun and give it all you have.
“I tell them that very few teams ever finish with a win. We didn’t want to have another loss. It was not the way we wanted it to end. We wanted to win a championship, but we took every record that we could but that.”