CHAMPAIGN, ILL. – Brandon Johnson grew up watching the Big Ten, so it was the main reason he decided to transfer to play for the Gophers for his final year of college basketball.
"It was definitely a dream come true," the Chicago native said after playing his first game for a Big Ten program earlier this season. "I was waiting for this moment."
The graduate transfer from Western Michigan nearly missed a chance to play back in his home state this week, but he returned from an ankle injury in the Big Ten opener Tuesday against Illinois.
Johnson was sidelined for one game, against Missouri-Kansas City. He suffered the left high-ankle sprain with 13 seconds left in last week's overtime win against Boston College.
But the 6-8 senior's quick recovery was a bright spot Tuesday, when he had eight points, eight rebounds and two blocks in a 92-65 loss.
After being hampered by an ankle injury before the season, Johnson came off the bench for the first two games and ran into foul trouble, but his comfort level increased with each opportunity. A sign of him turning the corner came when he had 15 points, two blocks and three steals in 27 minutes in his second start for the Gophers, against North Dakota on Dec. 4.
"I'm happy to play better competition," Johnson said earlier. "I'm looking forward to it and blessed to now do it on a night in and night out basis."
Johnson has played several games against major conference opponents in his career. He faced Mississippi, Oklahoma State and Michigan State last season as a junior at Western Michigan. He scored 21 points against Ole Miss.
"At Western Michigan, the majority of our guys were so consumed with playing on the big stage they didn't carry what we did in practice into games," Johnson said. "But here we put on our shoes just like the next guy."
One of three transfers the Gophers picked up before this season, Johnson couldn't get much going in the first half Tuesday. Neither could Both Gach, a Utah transfer. Liam Robbins, a 7-footer from Drake, had two three-pointers to open the game, but he played only five minutes in the opening period after picking up two fouls.
Sophomore guard Tre' Williams also returned for the Gophers after he was limited to 10 minutes in his previous game because of a leg bruise suffered against UMKC.
Williams, who turned 20 on Tuesday, provided a spark with a trio of bench players in last week's comeback victory against Boston College. He scored six points in 14 minutes Tuesday.