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Virginia Union’s Kiana Johnson and Howard’s James “J-Byrd” Daniel III
both lead the nation in scoring. But they bring other things to the table.

by Carl Lut Williams

k johnson hsJunior guard James Daniel III of Howard and senior guard Kiana Johnson of Virginia Union have more than a couple of things in common.

First, they’re both relatively small people doing big things in basketball, a primarily big person’s game.

In a rare double for black college players this year, both lead their respective NCAA divisions in scoring and both have comfortable margins over their nearest competitors.

But that’s not all they do.

Their scoring prowess is complemented by a unique set of other skills that has led them and their teams to new heights and into national prominence.

Johnson, a 5-foot 6-inch point guard, leads all Div. II women averaging 27.5 points per game, more than five points better than Missouri Western State’s LaQuinta Jefferson (22.6 ppg.). Johnson also tops the nation in steals at 4.6 per game and is second nationally in assists at 9.2 per game.

She has scored in double figures in all 21 Lady Panthers’ games topping the 30-point mark eight times with two games in the 40s. She has ten double-doubles of points and assists with a season-high 17 assists vs. St. Augustine’s on Jan. 11. Johnson has averaged 32.4 points in her last five games.

In her latest virtuoso performance, she tallied 39 points, dished out nine assists and had three steals in a 91-55 rout Wednesday of Chowan, the team that also has a 11-2 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) record and is tied with the Lady Panthers at 6-1 in the conference’s Northern Division.

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Johnson’s play has also been the catalyst as the 19-2 Lady Panthers have risen to 13th in the latest USA Today NCAA Div. II National Coaches Poll.k johnson action3

Not to be outdone, the 5-11 Daniel, known affectionately as ‘J-Byrd,’ plays on the wing at Howard and tops all Div. I men at 27.4 points per contest, nearly two points better than heralded Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield’s 25.7 points per game. Daniel also gets 2.5 steals per game, tied for sixth nationally. He leads the nation in free throw attempts (240) and free throws made (209) and is tied for 24th in free throw percentage (.871).

Daniel has seven games of 30 points or better with a season-high 39 that included a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in a late November win over William & Mary.

Before a recent four-game losing streak, Daniel and the Bison were near the top of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) standings.

They are now 4-5 in conference play, good for sixth in the league.

Howard’s 10-14 overall record is only remarkable when recognizing that the Bison have reached double-digits in wins only twice in the last 13 years, both in the last two years with Daniel on board.

Johnson’s route to VUU however was a little different than Daniel’s to Howard.

A Chicago native that played for the well-known Whitney Young High School program in the Windy City, Johnson played on a team that produced six Div. I signees.

Amongst other Young alumni are Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, now of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, former NBA player Quintin Richardson and former WNBA star Dominique Canty.

First Lady Michelle Obama, Marcus Jordan, son of Michael Jordan and Santita Jackson, daughter of Jesse Jackson, also attended the school.

Johnson says she was one of several point guards on her talented squad. She was recruited by and signed with Michigan State of the Big 10 where she started as a freshman and eventually started 58 games during a three-year career. She left in 2014.

Johnson said her best year was perhaps her freshman campaign. But her second and third years were full of what she calls “setbacks.” Not wanting to endure the same in her final season she decided to leave.

“It just wasn’t a good fit for me,” said the well-spoken senior. “So, I took a year off, just worked on my game, took some classes, got a job and just prayed to God that wherever he wanted to send me was where I was going to go.” Virginia Union was not even in the running. She had narrowed her choices to Bethel Univegilbert hsrsity, LeMoyne-Owen College (of the SIAC) and Goshen College, and prayed for a sign. Only two minutes later, she said, she got a call from her high school coach telling her that Ann Marie Gilbert, “Coach G,” as Johnson calls her, had gotten the job at VUU. Gilbert, a former Michigan State assistant and Eastern Michigan head coach, had faced Johnson while at EMU and knew of her talent. She arranged a visit for Johnson.

“That was the sign I needed,” said Johnson.

Though she knew nothing about the CIAA, she’s come to like it.

“It’s physical, but it’s just like any other conference. On any given day anybody can win. You can be the best team or you can be the worst team. It doesn’t matter. It’s all about coming in with the right mindset and taking care of business.” One of the highlights for the team, said Johnson, is an early season 94-90 win over MEAC member Norfolk State where she and 6-2 junior center Lady Walker both had double-doubles. Johnson had 29 points and 11 assists. Walker got 29 points and 20 rebounds.

The duo, with Walker averaging 18.0 points and 13.3 rebounds per game (first in the CIAA and first in the nation), has continued to be double trouble for opposing teams.

“That was big for us. That gave us the confidence to go into the season. After that we felt that nothing could stop us but ourselves.”

Johnson was a pass-first point guard at Michigan State and that unselfishness has made her even more lethal at VUU. She deftly quarterbacks the team, rarely forcing shots indicated by her .455 shooting percentage from the field and .393 marksmanship from behind the 3-point line. She shoots a deadly 83% (.827 – 139 of 168) from the line and she’s one of the point persons on the Panthers’ three-quarter-court trapping press that leads to her gaudy steal numbers.johnson action b

“This was already a pretty talented team before I got to Virginia Union,” said Gilbert. “We added some more shooters and a pretty talented floor general (Johnson) that can score and is so unselfish that she can get double-digit assists. That’s just what this team needed, a boost of confidence, a shot in the arm. When you put all those ingredients together, that’s what’s made this such a special year for us.” Johnson is more than happy with her choice of VUU “I love being at Union. It’s a family atmosphere. Everybody knows your name. Everybody wants to make sure you’re doing well in the books, on the court and off the court, and that life is good. That’s what I like about it the most.” VUU’s rise in the national polls is coming just four years after Shaw from the CIAA, under head coach Jacques Curtis, won the national title in 2012. Many believe the Lady Panthers could make a similar run.

“We’ve got enough speed, we’ve got enough size, we’ve got some shooters and we’ve got a great point guard that we’ve got to keep healthy the rest of the way,” said Gilbert.

“She’s only with us for one year so we just want to make it a special year. Can we go all the way, I don’t know. But I like our chances,” she said of making some noise in the postseason.

“We can go as far as we want to go,” said a confident Johnson, who has to be the leading candidate for Div. II national player of the year. “We can take it all.”

Like Johnson, Daniel played on an outstanding team at Phoebus High in Hampton, Va. that also had five or six Div. I recruits during his first three years. The AAU program he played for in his last years of high school, Adidas-based Team Loaded, had about ten such prospects including him.jbird action4

“There were a lot of good players so there weren’t many shots to go around,” he said. In his senior year at Phoebus, he averaged 21 points per game and was named the Peninsula District Tri-State player of the year.

Howard sixth-year head coach Kevin Nickelberry, who was head coach at Hampton University from 2006 to 2009, knew Daniel as a young kid who attended basketball camp at Hampton. “He was just a skinny little kid who could really shoot the basketball,” said Nickelberry. During the summer of his 9th or 10th grade year he started developing, making plays for himself and putting his team in position to win games.

After taking the job at Howard, Nickelberry’s first recruiting trip was to Hampton to see Daniel play and work out while a sophomore at Phoebus. Nickelberry said in the workout, Daniel took 100 3s and made 80-some.

“There was a physical issue there but he was so fast and quick with the ball. I told his dad I wanted him. I’ve learned from my 27 years coaching college basketball that the first thing you have to do is bring in kids who are fast, can shoot and have size. He fit two of those things.”

Daniel committed to Howard during his junior year. Nickelberry warned his dad that after his senior year, there would be plenty of bigger programs coming after him. And they did.nickleberry hs

“Everybody in the world came in late, tried to get him to go to prep school or whatever,” said Nickelberry. “I heard the rumors, telling him, ‘you’re too good for Howard.’ I told him he had a chance to come in and be special. Thank God, Steph Curry had just gone thru what he had gone thru (at Davidson). He went where they wanted him, where he was loved. It wasn’t because they missed out on somebody.” Nickelberry’s pitch was that in today’s day and age, if Steph Curry could do it at Davidson and the kid from Lehigh (C. J. McCollum, now with the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers) could do it, Daniel could come to Howard and do the same thing. It was not the first or last time Daniel’s been compared to Curry, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.

“Why go somewhere and be Robin when you can come here and be Batman,” Nickelberry said. And Batman he’s become.

He scored 30 points in his second collegiate game and went on to lead the MEAC in scoring as a freshman at 21.0 points per game – the first freshman in league history to accomplish that feat.

Last year, with all-conference forward J. C. Carlton on the team, he became more of a facilitator, but still put up 16.7 points and 2.7 assists per contest. This season, with season-ending injuries to starters J. T. Miller and Solomon Mangum, he’s had to take on more of the scoring load.

“We need him to score. He takes a lot of the blame when he’s not making shots,” said Nickelberry of Daniel’s .390 shooting percentage from the floor, and .337 shooting stat from behind the arc. “But he’s doing exactly what I’m asking him to do. He needs to shoot those shots for us. He had two points at the half against Norfolk State (last week). He finished with 34. We can’t allow teams to do what they want to do. That’s the goal, get the ball out of his hand. Make somebody else beat you.

“He came here shooting the ball and he’s going to leave here shooting the ball,” he said.

“I just look at it as trying to go out and win and the points will come,” said Daniel of the pressure of being the nation’s top scorer. “One of my responsibilities on our team is to score, so I it take it like everything.

Some guys job is to rebound, some guys job is to defend. One of my jobs is to score and I happen to be doing it well.”

“He’s the focal point of every team we play,” explained Nickelberry. “You’d be shocked that everyone we play when he gets the ball, all they say is ‘get it out of his hand, get it out of his hand.’ “He really has not gotten a wide-open shot since he scored 30 in the second game of his freshman year. Every shot he takes is an NBA shot, a contested shot. And I’ve never seen a kid get fouled so much on a jump shot in my life.” Daniel was asked how many teams play a box-and-one on him to shut him down.

“It would be easier to tell you how many I haven’t seen,” he said. “Honestly, it’s pretty much every single game.” “He doesn’t get enough credit,” said Nickelberry. “Every defense is designed to stop him and he averages 28 points per game. That’s why I think he has a chance to play at any level. He’s put this team on his back. We don’t have enough bodies and he still fights thru it. He’s a once in a lifetime player. “

As for the Bison’s chances down the stretch and in the MEAC Tournament, Daniel is still optimistic.

“We’re still pretty close,” said Daniel. “We’re still in the running. We lost to the No. 1 team in the conference (Hampton) on a fouled 3-point attempt in the final seconds. We’ll take it one game at a time. It’s a four-game season when you get to the tournament.”

MORE ON KIANA JOHNSON

  • Johnson is the first black college women’s player to lead the nation in scoring since Ashley Watts of Paine finished the 2013-14 season averaging 26.5 points per game.
  • A CIAA women’s team has won the NCAA Div. II national championship three times. Shaw (29-6) was the latest, winning the 2012 title under head coach Jacques Curtis. Hampton (33-1), then in the CIAA, won the crown in 1988 under head coach James Sweat. Virginia Union (27-2) won the title in 1983 led by head coach Louis Hearn.
  • VUU head coach Ann Marie Gilbert is married to Johnathan Walker who played on teams at Virginia Union (1985-90) with future NBA players Terry Davis and A. J. English under legendary head coach Dave Robbins. Walker is an assistant coach on the team. He and his wife are both natives of Cleveland, Ohio. Johnathan Walker came to VUU after CIAA and NBA legend Charles Oakley and before future NBA star Ben Wallace.
  • The only black college women’s NCAA Div. II Player of the Year was Tracy Saunders of Norfolk State, then in the CIAA, in 1991. Saunders led the Lady Spartans to 33 straight wins to open the 1991 season and to the NCAA Final Four. She finished her career with 2,084 points.

 MORE ON JAMES DANIEL III

  • Daniel has 1,690 points thru 80 games so far in his career, an average of 19.7 points per game. Daniel scored 587 points as a freshman, 500 as a sophomore and has 603 points this season with seven regular season games and this year’s MEAC Tournament still to come. He needs 685 points between now and next season to catch Tom Davis of Delaware State (1987-1991), the MEAC career scoring leader with 2,275 points.
  • The Howard career scoring record is held by Aaron Shingler (1964-67) at 1,725 points. Daniel needs only 36 points to become the school’s all-time leading scorer.
  • Kevin Granger of Texas Southern in 1995-96 is the last black college men’s player to lead Div. I in scoring at 27.0 points per game.

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