Senior forward Cash leaving legacy at McKeesport
Johnasia Cash has raised the level of play on the McKeesport girls basketball team.
Cash, a 6-foot-2 senior forward and Southern Methodist University recruit, averages 18.8 points and 14.7 rebounds.
But it's her intensity and overall competitiveness that the Tigers have adopted, leading to four consecutive wins and nine victories in their past 12 games.
Cash, lauded as the Tribune-Review's Class 5A preseason player of the year, is in her fourth season as a starter for McKeesport (11-10, 7-3), which ended up in second place in Section 2 in Class 5A.
Cash has scored more than 1,000 points and pulled down more than 1,000 rebounds in her stellar varsity career.
“Johnasia is a special basketball player, one that doesn't come around very often,” coach Eric Smith said. “She is actually getting better and playing the best basketball of her career. She's a fierce competitor with a high motor. Her teammates initially had a tough time dealing with her high motor, because not only does she expect them to do the same, but she also competes at practice at a high level. Her teammates had a tough time adjusting to a player who goes all out at practice and treats it like a game.
“Now, our younger players are performing at her pace. During games, teams will try to take away an aspect of her game, but it's hard to do so. If they try to take away her post game, she'll step outside and play on the perimeter. If they take that away, she'll just out-work them in the interior. She's a particularly tough matchup for anyone, especially the way she's playing now.”
Cash began the season averaging anywhere from 8 to 10 points, and 8-10 rebounds per game. Lately, she's been scoring in the 25- to 30-point range, capped by last week's career-best 36-point, 18-rebound performance in a 68-31 section win against Woodland Hills.
Prior to that explosive offensive output, Cash netted what was then a career-high 31 points in a 54-37 section win against West Mifflin.
“At the beginning of the year, I think Johnasia was taking too much on her shoulders,” said Smith, who has coached at McKeesport for 12 seasons. “She was the lone starter returning, one of the best players in the WPIAL, a Division I recruit, and knew she had to be a leader of a team with a ton of new players. It affected her game and her mental approach. She tried to do too much and thought she had to win the games by herself. She became very frustrated with everyone, including herself.
“After many conversations with coaches, administrators and teammates, she started to just play basketball, took what the opposition gave her, and allowed her teammates to play, too. It was easy to see it in her game, too.”
Cash, who also considered Temple, Cleveland State and Akron among her college options, has helped lead the Tigers into the WPIAL playoffs for three consecutive seasons, and has been an all-section selection since her freshman season.
She plans to major in psychology and minor in theater at SMU, which is located in Dallas, and owns a lofty 3.8 grade-point average.
“It was a choice between Temple and SMU. They play in the same conference,” Cash said. “The people at SMU were nice, the weather was great, and the campus is not too big and not too small. It's pretty diverse.
“And the coaching staff there told me they were going to get me to the next level. They have a whole new coaching staff; I just clicked with (head coach) Travis Mays the first time I spoke to him.”
The affable Cash signed with SMU in November, joining Dallas native Morgan Smith and Houston standout Ariana Whitfield in the Mustangs' 2017 freshman class.
“Johnasia is a very athletic forward who is very active. She will bring plenty of energy to the Mustangs with a huge personality,” Mays said in a release. “One of the pleasures of recruiting is when you are excited for a young lady to join your program, and she and her family are equally excited to join your program.”
Cash averaged 21.5 points and 11 rebounds as a junior, and 15.5 points and 11.7 rebounds as a sophomore.
McKeesport finished 13-8 overall in 2014-15 and 15-7 in 2015-16, losing to Pine-Richland in the first round of the playoffs both years.
“In the beginning (of her career), it was stressful,” Cash said. “It was hard being the only freshman starter. As time went on, it's been magical. Just to come from where people were saying the team was so bad, and now we're a threat. We're going out with a legacy; we're no longer the underdog.”
Speaking of legacy, Cash clearly has left her mark on the McKeesport girls basketball program. She has scored 1,373 career points, and eclipsed 1,000 career caroms in Monday's 53-46 section win at Thomas Jefferson, raising her career rebound total to 1,016.
“We always talk about a legacy and how you as a player want to be remembered when you graduate,” Smith said. “A lot of what we do or why we do something or the reasons for why we continue to push when we don't want to go any further are all ways that we are remembered when our careers are over. When Johnasia leaves, she for sure will leave a legacy. She has definitely left her mark on our program. We'll talk about her for a long time as someone who was so dynamic on and off the court, someone who went full speed in post drills in the middle of January, and someone who plays to the point of exhaustion every game.
“Along the same lines, Johnasia has set the standard for her peers. During team meetings, we discuss players who have played for us previously, and how they continued to work on their game and became starters for us or earned their way to a college scholarship. We'll also talk about how a player battled from an ACL tear, set some goals, bounced back, and achieved her goals. Now, when we talk to younger players, we can say, ‘If you want to play at the Division I level, you need to do this, just like Johnasia did. If you want to get recognized from college coaches, or you want to know how to improve your game, here's what Johnasia did. She set a goal and went out and accomplished it.' She has set the standard as to how to be a relentless basketball player, a team leader; someone who set a goal and achieved that goal. It's a great story, and one that we'll talk about for a long time.”
Cash also played AAU basketball for the Western PA Bruins, and sparked the team to the championship in the adidas Gauntlet Series in Georgia.
She competed in volleyball for two years at McKeesport, and was an all-section selection last fall. She also has been involved with musicals, dance and theater productions.
“I have a passion for singing,” said Cash, who is a cousin of former McKeesport and UConn basketball star Swin Cash, who competed in the WNBA and the Olympics.
The Tigers' talented senior hoopster has set the tone for this and future seasons at McKeesport.
Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.