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Michelle Smith: Freshman Gianna Kneepkens unfazed in first year with Utah women's basketball

Feb 9, 2022
Utah Athletics

Gianna Kneepkens and her five older brothers competed in almost every way.

First one to the car. First one to the store. First one to the table. Even the occasional football game outside in which her brothers — the oldest 13 years her senior, to her youngest brother, just two years older — gave her no special treatment.

They were all high school basketball players who shaped her game on every level. She was the little girl out shooting at the basket at their high school games. One time she filled in on her youngest brother’s sixth-grade team when they needed an extra player.

“They were tough on me and we were always doing something to compete against each other,” said the Utah freshman from Duluth, Minnesota. “My brothers are 100 percent part of my story. I think they gave me my little edge.”

Utah coach Lynne Roberts also had older brothers and she recognizes a kindred spirit in Kneepkens.

“When you have brothers, you are just kind of unfazed by things. You’ve seen it all. You’ve heard it all and you are not easily impressed and you are not intimidated,” Roberts said.

That describes the 5-foot-11 guard who is averaging 11.6 points per game on her offensively potent team, which is among the national leaders in scoring heading into Wednesday's rescheduled matchup against USC.

Kneepkens has been named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week four times this season and has to be considered a frontrunner for conference Freshman of the Year for her consistent scoring contributions.

Roberts said she knew she was getting a true offensive talent. Kneepkens scored a state tournament record 67 points in one game in the 2021 Minnesota Class AA Tournament.

“I’m of the belief that if you can score, I don’t care on what level. Sixty-seven points in a game, that will translate, it just does,” Roberts said. “And she’s not a selfish kid. She just has the ability to score.”

Kneepkens said her biggest adjustment to the collegiate game wasn’t what she thought. She thought it would be the speed, as is common for many young players. Instead, she said it is the intensity, the relentless demand to be on top of your game.

“Every single team we’ve played, if you have one off-focus possession, they will take advantage,” Kneepkens said. “I’ve also realized that when the other teams have an off-focus possession, you can take advantage and everyone wants to win so badly. That’s what makes it so much fun.”

The Utes are starting three freshman and two sophomores, placing a big burden on a group of young players that so far are up to the challenge. Utah has won three in a row after a 1-4 start to conference play that included with single-digit losses to Oregon and Colorado before it reeled off three in a row.

“We are learning and we know where are our mistakes are so we can fix them,” Kneepkens said.

Kneepkens’ whole family came to Hawaii before the holidays to watch her play. And her brothers fill up their sibling group text with praise, suggestions and opinions that make their little sister roll her eyes a little.

“They don’t always know what’s going on,” she said, laughing. “But they don’t know the ways in which they’ve helped me.”

That includes the toughness that Kneepkens knows she and her teammates will need in their rematch with Stanford after playing the Cardinal close in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago.

“We need to be the toughest team on the boards, with the 50-50 balls. Everyone wants to win in February and people will be playing harder,” Kneepkens said. “We need to value every possession.”

Sounds like the driven player that Roberts recruited.

“She is the team’s kid sister," Roberts said. "They tease her and she laughs at herself and she’s really easy going, but underlying all of that is an incredibly competitive kid. She is a driven person.”

The kind that would fight a big brother for the front seat in the car, any time, any day.