Pine Island native Aaron Johnston just finished his most successful season yet as the head women’s basketball coach at South Dakota State, the Jackrabbits advancing all the way to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. SDSU beat No. 12-ranked Syracuse in the second round of the tournament to get there, then lost 63-53 to No. 7 Oregon.
The 44-year-old Johnston has coached SDSU for 19 years. He has 469 wins and 156 losses in that span, with nine NCAA Tournament appearances. Prior to the Jackrabbits moving to Division I in 2004-05, he coached them to a Division II national title in 2003.
You are graduating 6-foot Macy Miller (Mitchell, S.D.), your star senior guard. She averaged 18.2 points, 3.4 assists, 6.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and shot 44 percent from 3-point range and 53 percent overall. This week, she was drafted by the Seattle Storm of the WNBA. What made her special?
JOHNSTON:Macy was elite. She was one of the best players around, and not just at SDSU and not just in the Midwest, but (the country). What made her so good was that she made other players so good. She helped Maddy Guebert (Apple Valley) finish as our fourth all-time leading scorer. Maddy and Macy were as good of a backcourt as someone could ask for. They complemented each other so well. Macy is our all-time leading scorer and the all-time leading scorer in the Summit League. We used her at point guard primarily, but she could also play off-guard and we used her at small forward. She could post up, score in transition and rebound. Macy was the kind of player who could always create a shot.
Beating No. 12-ranked Syracuse to advance to the Sweet 16 this season is the high-water mark for this program. Were you surprised to get it done?
JOHNSTON:Syracuse was a tough individual matchup for us, but they played a style that we’d seen a lot and they play a lot of zone, which we are good against. Part of what helped us was that we had a lot of players on our team who’d played two years ago in the round to get to the Sweet 16, against Stanford. We led most of that game against Stanford and I think we understood how close we were. That was a growing experience. Now, with some of our players now seniors, they had a chance to do it again. This time, they handled the pressure of the moment really well. So, I was not surprised that we won, but I was really proud of them.
In what ways would you expect that win over Syracuse will advance this program?
JOHNSTON:I see no reason why we can’t move forward and build on this. So few teams get to go to the Sweet 16, but now we are one of them. Now, we’ve been to the Sweet 16, had someone drafted this year — which was the second time we’ve had that happen. All of those things keep adding to the experience of being a player here. When young players see that happening, this becomes a very attractive place to be.
From a program that started at Division II when you first got there, did you ever dream that South Dakota State women’s basketball would get to this point?
JOHNSTON:I’m somewhere in the middle on that. It is a bit of a surprise, but I never looked at it and felt it was too big a hill to climb. I’ve been here 19 years and things have changed so much (within the program). I’ve never felt like we are limited here, never felt like we are outside of the world of being a top-25 team. The facilities here are phenomenal and the job has changed so many times here for me (for the better), that I’ve never felt like I have to go find a different job.
The presumption is that you’ve had some chances to move on to a bigger program. True?
JOHNSTON:Yes, I have had chances to move on. But for myself, my family, my wife and kids — as I’ve looked at those things, nothing has been the perfect fit to move on to. Right now, I do have a perfect fit.
What is the best part of leading this program?
JOHNSTON:The people. The people in Brookings are unbelievable. The community is great. They love their Jackrabbits women’s basketball. It’s the people here that make me want to stay and to continue to want to be successful here.
How good is your team going to be next year, especially considering that you are losing seniors Miller and Guebert?
JOHNSTON:I think we’ll be really good. I really do. I think we are going to have to answer some questions about how does life work without Macy and Maddy. But our talent next year is going to be tremendous and the players we have coming in are phenomenal.