KNOXVILLE, TENN. — KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- If you haven't seen Dana Johnson since she dominated the Baltimore high school girls basketball scene, you might not recognize the woman she's become.
For one thing, Johnson is 30 pounds lighter than when she led Western High to a 65-4 record and two city titles. The girlish eyeglasses have been replaced with contact lenses, which make her look more mature.
Oh, and then there's the duckwalk.
At certain select times during a Tennessee game, usually about the time the third-ranked Lady Vols are about to seal the deal on another win, Johnson, a 6-foot-2 senior post player, will score in close, then spin to head downcourt with an exaggerated gait that is a page right out of the Chuck Berry stylebook.
"Oh that?" says Johnson, with an ear-to-ear grin. "I'm just trying to put a little excitement into the game, trying to get folks fired up. It's no big thing. It was one of those things that just came out. The first time I did it, I said to myself, 'Why did you do that?' And it just kept coming out, so I kept doing it."
To Johnson, the move is nothing, but to others, it's just a symbol of the blossoming of a shy and retiring schoolgirl into a force that could lead Tennessee to its fourth national championship in the past eight years in this weekend's Final Four in Minneapolis.
Johnson, the leading Tennessee scorer and rebounder, has been impressive in the Lady Vols' four NCAA tournament games, averaging 24 points and 9.5 rebounds in about 25 minutes in Tennessee's romp through the Mideast Regional. The team has won by an average of 26.5 points.
"From the time we both got here, I knew she'd be a great player," said senior forward Nikki McCray, who likely will be named a Kodak All-American tomorrow with Johnson. "She's a better finisher now. She's our go-to player. When the game's on the line, we want Dana to have the ball."
To Pat Summitt, the Tennessee coach, Johnson's tournament play is nothing more than an extension of what she has done since she came in for workouts last summer.
"I'll say this about Dana Johnson this year: She has been our best leader by example, from the beginning to the end," said Summitt. "If you look at the last two months of play, she's been our most consistent player on the offensive end, both as a finisher and a rebounder. She's been an impact player and maybe the only times where she has not scored the numbers that we needed her to score was when we did not deliver the ball to her."
Said Johnson: "This year, I came in more focused. I didn't want to be inconsistent. I didn't want to be the person that they [the team] would have to worry about, like 'Would she show up tonight?' I didn't want to be a question mark in my teammates' mind."
Johnson's consistency -- she's the only Tennessee player to start in all 35 games and she's scored in double figures in all but five -- wasn't always there.
Through her first three years here, Johnson, The Baltimore Sun Player of the Year in 1991 and the first area player to come to Tennessee, was up and down, with a good game here and a drift of concentration there.
After the Lady Vols suffered a three-point loss in last year's Mideast Regional semifinal to Louisiana Tech -- a team that would lose to North Carolina in the national championship game and which Tennessee had beaten by 34 during the regular season -- Johnson hugged Summitt in the dressing room and pledged never to let her coach down again.
When she met with Summitt in the preseason to discuss her team and personal goals, Johnson told her coach she wanted to reach the Final Four and to win a national championship.
Given the history of the Tennessee program, that should have been easy. The Lady Vols have been present at eight of the NCAA's 13 Final Fours.
But though Johnson and her three senior teammates rolled up an 88-8 mark over their first three seasons, they still hadn't reached the Final Four. The seniors, who had been heralded as one of the best recruiting classes in women's history, entered this season in jeopardy of becoming the first group of Tennessee players not XTC to reach the national semifinals since Summitt began coaching here 21 years ago.
"It's great for our class that we've been able to do something like that in the four years we've been here, but our main goal since we've been here is to get to the Final Four and win a national championship, and that's what we're focused on," said Johnson.
So focused are the Lady Vols players in getting a title that within minutes after beating No. 5 Texas Tech, 80-59, Saturday for a Final Four berth, they were asking Summitt about practice and game times at the Target Center this weekend.
The pressure, both internal and external, has been tremendous on this club, notwithstanding the remarkable schedule Summitt put together to get the team ready for this moment.
The Lady Vols played 18 ranked opponents this year, beating 16, losing only to Vanderbilt in the Southeastern Conference tournament final and to top-ranked Connecticut on the road in January.
It is that 77-66 loss to the unbeaten Huskies that rankles the Tennessee players most. When they traveled to Storrs, the Lady Vols were playing their third game in five days and were without sophomore center Pashen Thompson, who Summitt says is the team's best low-post defender. Her skills were missed sorely as UConn center Kara Wolters scored 18 points and had five blocks.
"We don't think about it that often, but every now and then, you'll hear a comment about Connecticut, like once a week," said Johnson. "We don't want to make excuses, but if we had had 13 fresh, healthy bodies, the outcome would have been a little different."
To make the outcome different than it has been the past three years, and to start up a victory dance this weekend, Johnson will have to climb a mountain of expectation. But that's nothing she hasn't done before.
"In high school, we had a good team every year I was there. That's why I've handled it better. I know I'm always on a team that they're out to get, so I've taken it in stride," said Johnson.
Call it a duckwalk stride.
Year .. .. ..G .. ..Pts. .. ..Avg. .. ..Reb. .. ..Avg
1991-92 .. ..31 . ..239 .. ...7.7 .. ...172 .. ...5.6
1992-93 .. ..32 .. .350 .. ..10.9 .. ...182 .. ...5.7
1993-94 .. ..33 .. .455 .. ..13.8 .. ...241 .. ...7.3
1994-95 .. ..34 .. .552 .. ..16.2 .. ...261 .. ...7.7