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How will Utah women’s basketball move forward without Gianna Kneepkens?

Where the Utes might turn for production, leadership with star guard Kneepkens lost for the season

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Utah Utes guard Isabel Palmer (1) hustles to grab a loose ball during an NCAA women’s basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023.

Utah Utes guard Isabel Palmer (1) hustles to grab a loose ball during an NCAA women’s basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Feb. 12, 2023. With Gianna Kneepkens lost for the season with a broken foot, Palmer could be asked to take on a larger role for the Utes once she returns from injury.

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

One of the major storylines surrounding the Utah women’s basketball team this season has been the heavy amount of returning talent the Utes brought back from a Sweet 16 squad.

Lynne Roberts’ team returned all five starters this season, as well as a handful of key bench players with significant game experience.

That roster, which also includes a trio of transfers and two freshmen, is about to go through a big test, after junior guard Gianna Kneepkens was lost for the season after breaking several bones in her right foot late in the Utes’ 87-68 win over BYU last Saturday.

“That’s why we’ve been talking about our depth. I believe in this team, and everyone giving just a little bit more,” Roberts said Monday, after delivering the news that Kneepkens is lost for the year but will be able to use a medical redshirt to retain the year of eligibility.

“We’re still capable and we’re kind of right back where we started about a year ago where no one really thought — everyone’s gonna write us off again. But we thrive in that role. We’ll be fine. We’ll be good.”

Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens (5) grimaces in pain after being injured at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Dec. 2, 2023.

Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens (5) grimaces in pain after being injured in the fourth quarter as Utah and BYU women play at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. Utah won 87-68.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What Utah is losing with Gianna Kneepkens’ injury

It won’t be easy replacing Kneepkens’ production — the 6-foot Minnesota native has started all but seven games since arriving in Salt Lake City ahead of the 2021-22 season. She was named the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year that season, then earned All-Pac-12 first-team honors last season.

Kneepkens had built upon that success in the early portion of the 2023-24 season — through Utah’s first eight games, she had averaged career highs in points (17.8 per game), rebounds (5.5) and assists (3.9).

She had also shot a career-best 63.3% from the field and 53% from 3-point range — Kneepkens’ 27 made 3-pointers are currently tied for 10th nationally.

Replacing Kneepkens’ game savviness and moxie will also be another challenge.

“She’s just a playmaker. She’s not just a scorer, but she’s a playmaker. She can make things happen when nothing’s happening. She wants the ball at the end of the games, she wants those shots. A lot of players say they do, it’s different to really mean it. That confidence and swagger that she brings,” Roberts said.

Kneepkens’ love for the game has been well documented.

“I know she’s someone who loves it, she’s in here everyday for an hour before practice — she just lives, breathes basketball — so just knowing she can’t have that, it hurts a little bit more,” said fellow Minnesotan and Utah forward Jenna Johnson.

Roberts said Kneepkens is already asking how to stay engaged with the team, and how she can help from the sidelines. This comes as No. 11 prepares to play at unbeaten Saint Joseph’s on Thursday, followed by a neutral-site matchup with No. 1 South Carolina on Sunday in Uncasville, Connecticut.

Roberts said Kneepkens — who will the face mental step of recovering from an injury in due time — won’t be traveling with the team for the road trip.

“We’ll find roles for her. She was asking me today if she could already help with scouts. This is a kid that’s just feverish about basketball and our program, so she’s going to be a huge part of it. As it often goes, sometimes it can help your game,” Roberts said.

“You hate to have to go through it, but it’s like losing is sometimes better than winning. You can learn more from it. She’s going to learn from this, and we get her two more years.”

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Utah guard Matyson Wilke (23) dribbles the ball on offense while being defended by Mississippi Valley forward Sadie Williams (15) during an NCAA basketball game on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tyler Tate, Associated Press

Who could step up for the Utes?

Senior guard Isabel Palmer is perhaps best-positioned to help fill Kneepkens’ playmaking role once she returns to the floor — Palmer has missed the team’s past five games with her own injury and it’s unclear when she’ll be back, though Roberts expressed she’s hopeful Palmer can play this weekend.

On Monday, Palmer sat next to Kneepkens during practice as the two injured players watched their teammates on the floor.

During Utah’s first three games this season, Palmer averaged 14 points per game while shooting 57.1% from the field and 56.3% from 3-point range — that included hitting a career-high seven 3s in the Utes’ second game of the year, against South Carolina State.

Inês Vieira, who replaced Palmer in the starting lineup over the past five games, is one of the nation’s top facilitators — with the increased minutes, she is averaging 7.6 assists per game, good for fifth in the country. That’s an area where the Utes have already shown they can thrive in opportunities when injury has forced a change.

The Utes will also need more consistent scoring from other guards like junior starter Kennady McQueen, Wisconsin transfer Maty Wilke and sophomore Lani White.

McQueen is second on the team this season with 19 3-pointers, and she is averaging 9.0 points per game. The Henefer native is coming off her best game of the season — in the win over BYU, she scored 18 points and shot 6 of 10 from the floor, including 4 of 6 from 3, while adding a rebound and two assists.

Could Wilke step into Kneepkens’ starting role?

She started 29 games over two seasons for Wisconsin before transferring to Utah this year and went into the season expected to carve out a role with the Utes as another solid option for the nation’s No. 1 scoring offense. Through eight games, Wilke has scored in double-figures once and is averaging 4.9 points per game while shooting 36.1%.

“We’ll see. I think we’re still figuring it out,” Roberts said of Wilke potentially taking over Kneepkens’ spot in the starting five. “She’s a scorer, and she needs to play like it and she needs to believe it. We’re going to count on it. She can catch and shoot 3 as well as Kennady and Gianna, she just needs to step up and do it.” 

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Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili (35) reaches out for the ball as BYU Cougars forward Lauren Gustin (12) grabs her arm as Utah and BYU women play at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023. Utah won 87-68.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Roberts said the onus to help fill the gaps in Kneepkens’ absence will spread across the roster, including to star forward Alissa Pili, the team’s leading scorer (22.3 ppg) and the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“Everybody’s got to give a little more, right, in their own different ways,” the coach said. “Alissa’s going to need to stay on the floor more for the scoring, Maty Wilke’s going to have to produce, which she’s capable of, Lani White’s going to be relied on, Kennady is going to have to continue doing what she does and maybe at even a higher clip.” 

Roberts also mentioned forward Dasia Young, another experienced veteran, as someone who will be asked to take on a larger role.

“She’s somebody that’s played a lot of minutes. This is her third year here, brings a different level of physicality and intensity to what we do. We need her to be more reliable and consistent,” Roberts said.

“It’s going to be the sum of the parts.”

Johnson is confident the Utes, with their veteran roster, has the talent to overcome such a significant loss.

“Obviously, it’s a big hole to fill but especially at the guard spot, we have a lot of strength and talent,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll step up, we obviously have no other option other than to. I believe in our group, we’re a veteran group, steady and talented. I think we’ll do just fine.” 

The coach pointed out that the timing — with Kneepkens’ injury coming before Pac-12 conference play begins at the end of the month — could also be beneficial in helping the rest of the guard lineup develop as the season progresses.

“Through experience and through playing, these other guys are going to get that (swagger), too. It’s good we’re going to get that taken care of now, it’s good that it’s happening now and not in January,” Roberts said. “We still have some time, a month before Pac-12, and we need it. That’s a positive that we’re taking.”

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Utah Utes guard Kennady McQueen (24) gets off a pass while taking down Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs guard Ki’Ari Cain (1) during the NCAA First Round at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 17, 2023.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News