Florida State point guard Holly Johnson didn't need to be challenged by her coach at the end of last season.
She had already done that herself. Her statistics and role had declined from her freshman year and she knew her career was heading in a direction she never envisioned and couldn't accept.
"I decided that this is what I want to do, this is what I worked for my entire life _ to play college basketball, and I have to make the most of my opportunity," she said. "I definitely wasn't pleased with the way I'd been playing and I wanted to come out and prove myself to everyone."
Johnson, a 5-foot-8 junior and former Parade All-American out of Phoenix, came into this season in better condition and has been playing better than ever.
She's averaging 8.9 points, 3 rebounds and a team-high 4 assists in a team-high 34.3 minutes. Last year, she averaged 3.2 points, 2 rebounds and 1.6 assists. In fact, with 56 assists she already has surpassed last season's total of 49 and needs five to beat her freshman total.
"She committed last spring to being the best player she could be and coming in and winning the starting point guard spot," said coach Sue Semrau, whose surprising Seminoles (13-1) open ACC play tonight against visiting Georgia Tech (9-2). "Holly's always been willing to play whatever role that she needed to and that hasn't change, but the role certainly has."
Sophomore point guard Shante Williams, a member of the ACC all-freshmen team, unexpectedly took a year off for personal reasons. That came shortly after the death of promising sophomore forward Ronalda Pierce.
"Holly stepped into a greater role and a greater leadership role and has done a phenomenal job," Semrau said.
The groundwork for that came when Johnson re-adopted a workout program that she used between her junior and senior years in high school, one that emphasized building core strength. That meant more situps while on a slant board holding a medicine ball.
"I hit that back up in the summer and the results have been amazing," said Johnson, who also added agility drills.
She's quicker and stronger for it and that has led to a noticeable increase in her confidence.
"Getting fit is one of the greatest things in basketball and she worked extremely hard," Semrau said. "We talked about that, but it was more her own pride in what she wanted to accomplish that did it."
TIMING IS EVERYTHING: FSU and Florida will continue to disagree, respectfully so, about when is the best time for the annual men's basketball showdown.
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton would prefer a December date when students are still around so the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center might be jammed packed instead of 55 percent full. (The announced crowd Sunday afternoon was 6,632.)
But Gators coach Billy Donovan believes the optimum timing is the eve of the FSU-UF football game and that's when he wants it, at least when the Seminoles come to Gainesville.
"In my experiences, I think that's the best time to play the game in terms of environment, enthusiasm, excitement. It's incredible," he said.
AWARD WINNER: Oklahoma State tight end Billy Bajema, a four-year starter and a 2004 National Football Foundation Hall of Fame postgraduate scholarship recipient, was named the winner of the second annual Bobby Bowden Award. The award, presented by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, is intended to recognize the student-athlete who best exemplifies a faith-based life.
"It's a special award to be honored by the FCA and the award is named after a coach who's so respected, it's just a great honor," said Bajema.
POSTSEASON FOOTBALL: Safety Jerome Carter, defensive end Charles Howard, defensive end Chauncey Davis, cornerback Leroy Smith and offensive tackle Ray Willis are scheduled to appear in the Gridiron Classic on Jan. 15 at the Villages Polo Stadium. Meanwhile, receiver Chauncey Stovall is set to play in the East West Shrine Game that same day at SBC Park in San Francisco.
Carter and defensive end Eric Moore are tentatively headed for the Jan. 22 Hula Bowl and defensive tackle Travis Johnson, offensive tackle Alex Barron, receiver Craphonso Thorpe and cornerback Bryant McFadden have been invited to the Jan. 29 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
Times staff writer Brian Landman covers Florida State. Reach him at (813) 226-3347 or landmansptimes.com.