Kaylee Johnson is in some select company.
The former Natrona County High School standout, now a junior at Stanford, was the first Wyoming player in 24 years, and likely just the second ever, to compete in the Final Four of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament when the Cardinal took on South Carolina on Friday.
Afton’s Cynthia Kinghorn (nee Clinger), a three-time state champion at Star Valley High School, won a national title at Texas Tech University in 1993.
“It’s crazy,” Johnson said in a phone interview Wednesday from Dallas, the site of the Final Four. “We’re blessed, we’re lucky and we’re thankful to be here. To get to the Final Four is something else. They really bring out the bells and whistles for you.
“Even though we do appreciate all this, it’s important that we don’t get caught up in the hype. We’re just excited to get back on the court and play another game.”
On the road again
This has been a whirlwind month for Johnson and the Cardinal (32-5).
They won the Pac-12 Conference Tournament in Seattle and earned the No. 2 seed in the NCAA’s Lexington Regional. However, because the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships were already scheduled for Maples Pavilion – the Cardinal’s home court – Stanford began the NCAA Tournament in Manhattan, Kansas.
After beating New Mexico State and Kansas State, the team was ready to return to Stanford before making its way to Lexington, Kentucky, for the Sweet Sixteen later that week.
“After our second game in Kansas we were all waiting around the locker room waiting to go home because we had finals all that next week,” said Johnson, a Pac-12 All-Academic selection. “And then we found out there was something wrong with the plane so we wouldn’t be able to get out until the next morning. What it boiled down to was we would have been on campus for less than 24 hours so we decided it would be best to just go to Lexington.
“All that next week leading up to our games in Lexington, we studied for finals. We were literally sitting at these desks studying for finals. It was a busy week and it got to be a little exhausting, but it all worked out.”
The No. 2 seed Cardinal defeated Texas 77-66 March 24 and then knocked off top-seeded Notre Dame 76-75 March 26 to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2014.
A different type of season
The 6-foot-3 Johnson was a three-time winner of the Wyoming Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year (2012-14) and led the Fillies to the 2014 Class 4A state championship.
She continued that success her first season at Stanford, where she set a freshman school record by averaging 9.6 rebounds per game and was named to the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team. The Cardinal advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Notre Dame.
As a sophomore, Johnson started 24 games and averaged 6.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game for a team that lost to Washington to fall one game short of the Final Four.
Johnson was selected as a team captain before the start of this season but suffered a stress fracture in her left foot in the fourth game.
“It was definitely frustrating to be injured, and it took me some time to find my rhythm,” said Johnson, who missed 10 games with the injury. “From a selfish, individual point of view, it hasn’t been my favorite season.
“But overall this has been my favorite season,” she added. “I would do it all again. Just because of the team and watching these girls battle every game, being on the court with them and spending every second with them.”
Johnson still starts for the Cardinal but is averaging just 3.8 points and 5.1 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game.
Natrona coach Doug Diehl, who talks with Johnson at least once a month, knows the injury has been a major factor in her career-low numbers.
“Not only was she not able to play,” Diehl said, “but she wasn’t able to practice. And I think that affected her confidence. It’s tough, because Kaylee is such a competitive kid and that competitiveness put her at Stanford.”
Admittedly, Johnson has not had the season she visualized, at least individually.
But playing in the Final Four and being part of head coach Tara VanDerveer’s 1,000th career victory earlier this season have helped make it all worthwhile.
“I’m on a team with 12 of my best friends,” Johnson said. “Of course we’re excited because of the stage we’re on, but we’re just excited to play with each other again because we love each other so much.
“I’ve never had so much fun playing basketball.”
Stanford lost Friday to South Carolina, which then when on to claim the NCAA Division I championship title Sunday.