Freshman guard Gianna Kneepkens an instant success for Utah women’s basketball
The fourth-leading scorer in Minnesota prep basketball history has already won Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors four times
Considering that she had won Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors four times before the month of January was over, Utah women’s basketball player Gianna Kneepkens could probably be forgiven for not being able to name her favorite moment to date as a member of the Utes.
“I have loved all of it,” said the 5-foot-11 guard from Duluth, Minnesota. “It has all honestly been a good time. Every single minute of it.”
And why not?
Kneepkens has taken the state, and the conference, by storm. She’s a superstar in the making, along with her roommate and fellow Minnesotan Jenna Johnson, and a big reason why coach Lynne Roberts’ team is honing in on an NCAA Tournament at-large berth.
“Honestly, I just like being with this team. I love all my teammates. They are my best friends. So I just like spending time on the road with them, having dinner with them, winning with them. I even (stay positive) after losing games, because we come together and figure out what we need to fix, and then fix it.” — Utah guard Gianna Kneepkens
“Surprised (at Kneepkens’ success) isn’t the word,” Roberts told the Deseret News last week. “I am more impressed with her consistency. I mean, she’s been phenomenal.”
Utah is 13-7 overall, 4-4 in conference play, heading into Wednesday’s 2 p.m. showdown at the Huntsman Center against USC in a COVID-19 makeup game. The Utes are tied for sixth with Oregon State in the Pac-12, generally considered one of the two best women’s basketball leagues in the country.
But more importantly, the Utes are No. 23 in the NET rankings, having played a strong nonconference schedule that included wins over Xavier, Cincinnati and Saint Mary’s and losses to Gonzaga, BYU and Oklahoma.
“Where is the program? I think it is in a great spot,” Roberts said. “We have the No. 1 offense in the country in points per possession and efficiency. … At Colorado (a 78-67 win that sparked a three-game winning streak), we started three freshmen and two sophomores. … The majority of our team is freshmen and sophomores, and they are talented and they are hungry and they love being at Utah.”
None more so than Kneepkens, who served notice that she was the real deal back on Dec. 4 when she scored a career-high 29 points in the 85-80 loss to No. 21 BYU in just her eighth college game.
She is averaging 11.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game, while shooting 40% from 3-point range (35 of 88).
“Honestly, I just like being with this team. I love all my teammates. They are my best friends. So I just like spending time on the road with them, having dinner with them, winning with them,” Kneepkens said. “I even (stay positive) after losing games, because we come together and figure out what we need to fix, and then fix it.”
While Roberts, in her seventh year, isn’t surprised that Kneepkens is doing what she’s doing, the freshman said she never set any expectations for herself, other than to help her team win games.
“As long as our team is successful, it doesn’t really matter,” she said.
How does the fourth-leading scorer in Minnesota prep girls basketball history end up at Utah, of all places?
Kneepkens — it is a Dutch name, with her great grandparents having migrated to the United States from the Netherlands — said she got a phone call from a Utah assistant after she played well in an AAU tournament early in her high school career. She visited the campus before the pandemic hit, and when the time came to make a choice between the Utes and home state favorite Minnesota, she picked Utah.
“I just loved it,” she said. “It just felt right. It just checked all my boxes.”
Roberts said her coaching staff noticed Kneepkens when she was a ninth-grader and playing for a well-known club team.
“She was definitely under the radar,” Roberts said. “She wasn’t one of the high-profile athletes coming out of Minnesota at that time, but she kinda blew up there before her junior year.”
By that time, she had already formed solid relationships with several Utah coaches.
“It is hard for us to get, at this stage, maybe those five-star, high-profile, sexy recruits that are getting recruited by UCLA and Stanford,” Roberts said. “… But we have to do a good job of finding the young ones that can really impact early, so that’s what we did with Gianna. And I am glad we did.”
Kneepkens said her family — parents Donald and Betsy and five older brothers — never held her back or worried about sending her so far away. Besides, she noted when talking to the Deseret News last week, the temperature in Duluth that day was minus-7. It was 34 in Salt Lake City.
“It is reasonably cold here,” she said, laughing.
Speaking of those five brothers, Kneepkens says that she “100%” got her competitiveness from growing up playing basketball with and against them in the driveway outside their house.
“I always had to beat them, unless it was doing chores, and then I didn’t want to beat them,” she said. “I remember all the time coming out of stores, we would race to be the first one to get to the car.”
She began playing organized basketball in the first or second grade. By the time she hit Duluth Marshall High, she was great in two sports — soccer and basketball. She ended up being a three-time all-stater in basketball and a two-time all-stater in soccer.
“I always had to beat them, unless it was doing chores, and then I didn’t want to beat them. I remember all the time coming out of stores, we would race to be the first one to get to the car.” — Gianna Kneepkens on getting her competitiveness by competing with her five brothers
“Around fifth grade, I just started to really love basketball a little more,” she said. “Soccer was just a side thing for fun. I really, really love basketball.”
She averaged 31.2 points as a junior at Marshall, and 43.1 as a senior. She set the Minnesota state tournament record for points in a game, scoring 67 in a loss in 2021.
“We lost the game, so that was really sad, because my senior year ended then,” she said. “It kinda sucks it ended that way, but it was a good learning experience.”
She finished with 3,704 career points, “which is ridiculous, for lack of a better word,” Roberts said. “So I knew she could score. But any time you have those players that are so decorated in that way, you are not sure how quickly it will translate.”
Suffice to say it has translated for a hard worker who was also her high school’s class president.
“She is a humble kid, comes from just a great family, where it is about work ethic,” Roberts said. “She is literally in the gym all the time. … I have had so many coaches in our conference just talk about what a player she is, and a future pro. If she can keep her head screwed on straight, and she has so far, I think the sky truly is the limit for her.”