Last year, Elon University head women’s basketball coach Charlotte Smith  threw Shay Burnett and Malaya Johnson, the team’s two freshmen, right into the fire. 

And they produced.

Burnett, a guard, led the team in scoring at 10.5 points per game, and Johnson, a forward, averaged 7.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. Burnett started 30 games while Johnson started 20. 

With a year under their belts, big things are expected from the sophomore duo — and rightfully so.

When asked what’s different about this year’s team, Smith pointed directly to the maturing of Burnett and Johnson.

“[Burnett], we’re really going to rely on her to make plays for the team and make plays for other people,” Smith said. “She’s very talented. She makes everybody around her better. When the game is on the line, we’re going to put the ball in her hands and trust she’s going to lead the team to victory.

“[Johnson] has been a good, dominant force for us in the low block. She’s very consistent in terms of scoring and making things happen for us offensively.”

Burnett, who will surely start, will be the focal point of this year’s team. For her — and Elon — to succeed, she has some work to do.

She acknowledges what she called “freshman mistakes” and how those should be corrected, and also listed improving her assist-to-turnover ratio. Last year, she averaged more than one turnover for every assist she had, turning the ball over a team-high 108 times.

Improve on those, great. Burnett’s already playing at a high level for Elon, and that would improve the flow and productivity of the offense.

Then, it’s a matter of her stepping into the role of being the go-to player when the game is on the line.

In a game last year against Hofstra University, Burnett helped Elon take a one-point lead with less than a minute to play on a three-point play. After Hofstra retook the lead with five seconds left, Burnett once again found the ball in her hands.

Elon didn’t get a shot off and lost, 55-53.

“It was a freshman mistake. I should’ve let the ball go,” Burnett said. “But I didn’t, and we lost the game. But I’m ready to take on this role … I’m ready to step up.”

Her teammates believe she’s ready for that role, too.

“We’re all very comfortable with her having the ball in her hands,” said senior guard Josepha Mbouma. “I’ve seen some growth in her. I’ve seen her be smarter about things defensively, taking charges and putting her body on the line. She’s using her body well and knowing how to adjust to the speed of the game.” 

Speed shouldn’t be an issue — Burnett is aggressive when driving down the lane. It shouldn’t be long before the opponents are having trouble catching up to her.

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