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Court offers comfort, stability for Iowa State guard Seanna Johnson

This year has not been what anyone expects of Iowa State, least of all the Cyclones themselves. This is a proud and distinguished program that's used to the postseason; Iowa State has gone to the NCAA tournament 16 of the past 19 seasons, including the past nine years in a row.

But the Cyclones finished the regular season Tuesday at 13-16 overall after an 82-57 loss to West Virginia.

So why did it still seem like such an uplifting night in Ames, Iowa?

Because Iowa State guard Seanna Johnson was back on the court, after a very emotionally difficult past 10 days in what's been a challenging season for the Cyclones. Johnson had missed the previous two games while at home in Minnesota with her family after her father, Curtis Johnson, suffered a stroke on Feb. 20.

She returned to action Tuesday, and led the Cyclones with 21 points and 14 rebounds. This season, Johnson -- one of the Big 12's top players -- has been the Cyclones' rock. And now, when she most needs that reciprocated, the Iowa State community has responded.

"It was a relief to be back and knowing that I had my teammates and fans behind me," Johnson said after the game. "I just knew basketball was something that could take my mind off being at home."

Johnson said her father is not in a coma but has not fully regained consciousness. He remains on a respirator. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the Johnson family with expenses.

It's been a trying time for Johnson, her mother and two brothers, but getting back to basketball gave her a brief reprieve from worrying.

"You've got to give Seanna an amazing amount of credit," Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said. "Basically, she single-handedly kept us in the game.

"It's amazing how she's handled herself this year. She's so easy to coach. We're asking her to do a million things, and she's like 'No problem.'"

All this season, even before her father's stroke, there was something that kept whatever happened in basketball in perspective for Johnson. And that was knowing how much her brother, Jarvis, wished he could be playing now.

Jarvis was one of the top recruits for Minnesota but wasn't medically cleared by the Gophers' athletic department to play because of a heart condition called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Jarvis has had a defibrillator in his chest since he collapsed during a basketball practice as an eighth-grader in 2010.

His heart had stopped beating, and the paramedics who first responded thought he was dead. Doctors worried he would never wake up or would have severe brain damage.

But Jarvis recovered -- amazingly quickly -- and went on to win four high school state titles. He was heavily recruited, chose the hometown Gophers, but then last summer learned he wouldn't be allowed to play.

For Seanna, who is just 14 months older than Jarvis and considers him practically like her twin, the news was as devastating as if it had happened to her. In fact, if she could have reversed the situations so that Jarvis could play and she couldn't, she would have.

"He called me, and he was crying," Seanna recalled of when Jarvis found out he hadn't been cleared to play. "I was saying that I didn't know if I wanted to keep playing if he couldn't.

"Then after we hung up, he texted me and said, 'You're not giving up. You are my hero. I love you.' I still have that text message. I thought, 'I can't give up.'"

"I was a late bloomer, and I wasn't that talented. But one quote that stuck with me is, 'Hard work will beat talent if talent doesn't work hard.'" Seanna Johnson

Johnson averaged 10.9 points her freshman season, and 11.7 points and 9.2 rebounds as a sophomore. When she wasn't included for any preseason Big 12 honors last fall, Fennelly was very disappointed. But throughout this season, she's proved that she deserves them; she is averaging 16.6 points and 9.4 rebounds. On Wednesday, Johnson was named to the All-Big 12 first team.

"She's someone with a tremendously high basketball IQ," Fennelly said. "She thinks the game, and she's figured out what she's good at and how to slash, attack, use angles. She's very good with either hand, and she can fling it over the defense. She loves the game but is very understated.

"You look at her stat line after the game and say, 'Really? How did she do that?' She doesn't do anything great, but she does a whole lot of things really well."

Jarvis has been in school at Minnesota this year but will consider going somewhere that he is allowed to play. He's been closely following his sister's season and offering encouragement and advice.

"We've always gone back and forth, making suggestions about each other's games," Jarvis said. "We were always really close. Our older brother, he's seven years older than me. So Seanna and me spent a lot of time together, shooting around, playing one-on-one."

Seanna said both of her brothers helped her game grow by treating her just like any other player.

"They were always tough on me, in a good way," she said. "We'd play five-on-five, and they'd always pick me. It helped me grow confidence in myself. They pushed me, and they believed in me.

"I was a late bloomer, and I wasn't that talented. But one quote that stuck with me is, 'Hard work will beat talent if talent doesn't work hard.' "

The talent, though, has definitely blossomed. And despite the losses this season, Johnson clearly has been making her mark on the Big 12 and growing as a player. Now, though, she has to deal with the uncertainty and fear about her father.

Seanna recalled that when Jarvis was still in serious condition in the hospital in 2010, she returned to her high school team at the urging of her parents.

"I was like, 'I don't want to play,' and my mom said, 'You have to play for him,'" Seanna said. "I actually had a really good game, but he was on my mind that whole time. But I didn't lose hope, ever. I just never lost faith, and with something like that, that's just how you get through it."

Now, Seanna and her family are in that situation again, this time with Curtis. And while basketball can't solve anything, it's at least something concrete for her to hold onto.

Next for the Cyclones is the Big 12 tournament in Oklahoma City, where No. 8 seed Iowa State meets No. 9 Texas Tech in the first round Friday.

Tuesday was senior night for Iowa State, and along with praising his two seniors, Madison Baier and Nicole "Kidd" Blaskowsky, Fennelly lauded Johnson's performance.

"She got to spend some time with her Iowa State family tonight, and release some stuff in-between the lines that maybe she's been holding in while sitting in a hospital room with her father," Fennelly said. "It doesn't replace anything or change anything, but maybe she can smile on the inside a little bit more. Because young people need to do that."