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Woman of Troy

Casie Johnson couldn't imagine an extended weekend getting any better after her Troy basketball pulled off a shocker and won its conference tournament, earning a spot in the Women's NCAA Tournament.

Then came the selection show Monday to see who the Trojans would be paired with.

Then came their first-round destination: Corvallis, and an opener today against Oregon State.

Johnson, a former Eagle Point standout who, as a reserve junior forward, is in her first year at the Alabama school, treated her emotions to yet another joy ride.

“I didn't expect it to be Oregon State,” said Johnson, who had two outstanding seasons at College of the Sikiyous in Weed, Calif., before transferring to Troy this school year. “When I saw the location, I was so excited. It was unreal.”

The Trojans were the No. 4 seed in the Sun Belt Tournament and knocked off Nos. 1 and 2 to become the lowest seed to win the tourney.

Two days later, the team and its fans gathered at Trojan Arena for the selection show. They didn't have to wait long for a graphic showing Troy would be in the Dallas Regional and facing No. 2 seed Oregon State. It was the first regional announced.

“I kicked off my shoes and was jumping around,” said Johnson. “Everybody was really excited for me, that we get to go back and people (here) get to see me play. They also get to see where I'm from, so that's exciting.”

Oregon State has had a meteoric rise to become one of the nation's top programs. When Johnson was a senior at Eagle Point in the spring of 2013, the Beavers were wrapping up a 10-21 season. She paid them little mind.

“I've always been more of an Oregon fan than Oregon State,” she said.

Now, OSU is the Pac-12 champion with a 28-4 record and is hosting the first two rounds of an NCAA regional for the second straight year.

In a game that will be televised on ESPN2, the Beavers and No. 15 seed Troy (20-12) play at 2 p.m. today. In the other game, No. 7 Oklahoma State (21-9) plays No. 10 St. Bonaventure (23-7) at 4:30 p.m.

It's a daunting assignment for the Trojans, who are making their second tournament appearance and first since 1997.

They've played two NCAA tourney teams, beating Alabama State, 73-59, and losing to Belmont, 102-93. Troy's worst loss was to Vanderbilt, 97-43.

The game against the Beavers will match Troy's high-octane offense against OSU's shutdown defense. The Trojans rank sixth nationally in scoring at 81.8 points per game, while the Beavers are seventh in scoring defense at 51.3.

“I know they have a big girl,” said Johnson, referring to 6-foot-6 Ruth Hamblin, “and they run things a little slower than our team. We're a really fast-paced, running team. If we can run on them and get in transition and score, then we'll do good. If they're able to slow us down, it'll be tough.”

It will be just another adventure for Johnson.

Her odyssey since leaving Eagle Point seems to know no bounds.

At College of the Siskiyous, she developed into one of the top junior college players in California. She was twice the Golden Valley Conference player of the year and her scoring average as a sophomore, when she shot 64 percent from the field, was 21.5, ranking fifth in the 89-school California JUCO system.

Coach Tom Powers, who has been at Siskiyous 33 years, in a Mail Tribune article a year ago called her possibly the best player he's had.

Johnson's success earned her a trip to Troy — which seemed another world away — and a roster spot.

She drove there last August.

“It was a long drive,” she said. “My car almost exploded about 20 times.”

There have been adjustments off and on the court.

There's a lot of fried food, she said, high humidity and virtually no mountains. Outdoor activities she enjoyed here, such as hiking and camping, are relatively foreign.

“There are just different activities out here,” she said.

On the court, the 6-foot Johnson has adapted to becoming a role player. She's played in 31 of the Trojans’ 32 games, starting twice.

She averages 10.7 minutes, 3.7 points and 1.2 rebounds. If she had enough attempts to qualify, her 66-percent shooting from the field would easily lead the Sun Belt. She's at 73 percent on free throws.

“I did have a lot of expectations coming in because I know my talent,” said Johnson. “I haven't played as much as I know I should be. I've learned to accept the reasons they gave me for the time I get to play. My role on the team fits what I do.”

Her job, she said, is to come off the bench and provide short bursts of energy on both offense and defense. She's most effective making aggressive offensive moves in the paint.

“I appreciate the opportunity to play,” she said. “I do wish I played more because I'm a ballplayer. I know I can contribute. I contribute what I can and it's fun.”

The Sun Belt tourney was especially fun after a roller-coaster regular season. The Trojans won five straight, then lost six straight, then reeled off wins in 10 of their last 11 games.

In the conference tournament, they trailed South Alabama, 29-21, at halftime but regrouped for a 62-49 victory.

It was their springboard.

“I don't know what it was that set us off,” said Johnson. “We had eight straight steals and had great energy.”

The momentum carried over to the semifinals against top-seeded Arkansas State in a 96-89 win. Johnson had eight points in 13 minutes, making 4 of 7 field goals.

Troy won the title game, 61-60, over Arkansas-Little Rock, getting a field goal from leading scorer Ashley Beverly Kelley with 21 seconds left for the final margin.

Now come the Beavers, whom Johnson will get to face in front of family and friends.

She isn't making a prediction.

“They're at a high level,” she said. “I don't know. We'll see.”

No doubt she'd again like to have reason to kick off her shoes.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479, or email ttrower@mailtribune.com

Former Eagle Point standout Casie Johnson looks to make a move in Troy's Sun Belt Tournament championship win over Arkansas-Little Rock. Johnson and her teammates visit Oregon State in the first round of the Women's NCAA Tournament today. PHOTO BY CHRIS DAVIS
Fourth-seeded Troy celebrates the Sun Belt crown, becoming the lowest seed to win the title. PHOTO BY CHRIS DAVIS