For a while, it was hard to mention Aiyana Johnson without talking about her sister Aaliyah.
For three seasons, the pair towered over opponents’ forwards and often created tough matchups as either could go off for 20 points or 10 rebounds on any given night.
The 2017-18 season, however, was the first time at the high school level that Aiyana had to play without the other half of the forward tandem.
But the one season without her sister ended up being her best yet. The senior forward was selected as a Class 5 first-team all-state player, was nominated for the DiRenna Award (given to the best player in the Kansas City area) and put up the best numbers of her career.
She averaged 18.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.1 blocks per game.
Because of her big season, Johnson is the 2017-18 Examiner Girls Basketball Player of the Year.
This season, Johnson was a big reason her team made it to the Class 5 state quarterfinals, went 21-6 and knocked off then No. 1 state-ranked North Kansas City.
The 6-foot-3 post player was the third in her family to go through the program. Her older sister Imani Johnson, who also was a DiRenna Award finalist, led North to the state championship game in 2014. This was the last year North coach Tricia Lillygren got to coach one of the three sisters.
“It’s been either nine or 10 years that I had at least one of the Johnson sisters,” Lillygren said. “They are a family that has been a staple here for a long time. “It’s going to feel weird not seeing them in the stands or the court. It’s been a true blessing that has been a support system to our program.”
It was an adjustment for Johnson, who played with a more guard-oriented team. At first, the chemistry wasn’t there for her and the Broncos as they began the year 3-3. But later in the season, everything came together as they finished the regular season by going 15-2 the rest of the way.
“It was different playing without my sister,” Johnson said. “Having that chemistry with the girls just helped fill that space. I believe that our season was amazing. It was a great way to end my senior season.”
Coming into the season, Lillygren ponder about how Aiyana would respond to playing without Aaliyah. She was pleased with the end result.
“I was wondering how she would respond to holding down the fort in the post alone,” Lillygren said. “We’ve had two Johnsons for several years. We knew there was going to be a lot of focus on her. It took us a little bit of time to see how we were going to combat that.
“Around Christmas, our team chemistry became better and we started figuring out our identity. Aiyana was a huge part of that.”
It helped that her two older sisters have been a huge influence on her basketball career.
“They helped me view the game of basketball in a different way than other girls,” Johnson said. “Having my sister in my life gave me that advantage. Seeing them thrive helped me with my own game.”
“They were my biggest competition growing up whether it was in the driveway or in practice.”
That included playing each other in one-on-one games at home. So who won most of the time?
“I absolutely win every time,” Aiyana said.
Johnson won’t have to go long without playing with her sisters, however. Later this year, she will join them at Stephen F. Austin University to play at the NCAA Division I level.
“I very excited to play with my sisters again and also with Bri (Burns, a William Chrisman grad),” Johnson said. “I am sure we will make some memories along the way.
Lillygren hopes to witness as many of those memories as she can.
“I told them I am going to be her biggest internet stalker,” Lillygren joked. “I plan on watching her games online. It’s going to be fun to see the three sisters next year.”