Salt Lake City is more than a thousand miles from Duluth but that didn’t stop Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts’ coaching staff from attending three of Gianna Kneepkens' sporting events last fall and winter.
Kneepkens, a Duluth Marshall junior, was impressed by the passion and dedication, and on Sunday, Duluth’s all-time leading girls basketball scorer announced her commitment to playing basketball for the Utes.
Kneepkens said she cut her list of 17 schools down to six finalists: Utah, Villanova, Saint Louis, Minnesota, South Dakota and George Washington, but in the end, it was the Utes.
“They did all they could to support me as a player and as a person from the very beginning,” said Kneepkens, who addressed the media Tuesday. “They showed how they would support me academically, athletically, socially and spiritually, which is super important to me. The coaches are just fantastic. It’s the whole package.”
The same has been said about Kneepkens.
Coach C.J. Osuchukwu often tells people Kneepkens is “our 1 through 5” when asked what position she plays.
Yeah, she can do it all.
Kneepkens averaged a Northland-best 29 points per game in helping lead Duluth Marshall to its first state tournament in 20 years. Kneepkens, who led the state in scoring at 32 ppg as a sophomore, added 11.1 rebounds, 5.8 steals and 4.2 assists while shooting 55 percent from the field, 36 percent from 3-point range and 84 percent from the free-throw line.
“Gianna is the hardest-working person on the team, on and off the court, but she reaches out to us to make sure we’re OK, too,” said junior guard Leah Mrozik, who attended Tuesday’s press conference in Hermantown with teammates Dasia Starks and Laila Monroe. “I’ve never gone against anyone like that, and going against her in practice helps me offensively and defensively. She pushes all of us to be the best players we can be.”
Kneepkens had 26 points and 15 rebounds as the Hilltoppers netted their first state-tournament victory in school history with a 60-56 comeback win over third-seeded New London-Spicer March 11 before the season abruptly ended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Utah coaches, who had already seen one of Kneepkens’ soccer games and two basketball games, planned to see another basketball game before the state tournament was canceled.
Kneepkens is a four-star recruit who is ranked 65th nationally in her class by Prospect Nation. Per NCAA rules, she will officially sign in November.
“She’s definitely top three in the state for her class, and the best of the Northland,” Osuchukwu said. “She’s fast and long and can guard other positions, but I think 2-guard will be her main spot in college.”
Utah featured a young team this season and went 14-17 overall and 6-12 in the Pac-12.
“Gianna is all about loyalty, and that school (Utah) seemed very loyal to her,” Osuchukwu said. “It was crazy, because in her words, they kind of knew her better than she knew herself. That was her first time meeting them, and that was a big turn-on for Gianna.”
Fellow All-Area performer Grace Kirk, Gianna’s best friend, willed the team on its playoff push while Kneepkens battled a hamstring injury. It was during this time that Kneepkens, a 4.0 student and class president who plans on going into medicine, proved her mettle while showing off a crafty side to her game.
“Not being able to finish the state tournament was super sad, but I’m just excited to have one more season and see where it goes from there,” Kneepkens said.
Kirk will play basketball at Brown University, an NCAA Division I Ivy League school which doesn't offer athletic scholarships, in Providence, Rhode Island. Take away those two, and you just don’t have many Division I girls basketball recruits from Duluth.
Guard Katy Freeman (Missouri-Kansas City, Southern Illinois-Carbondale, D-II Minnesota Duluth), a 2004 Duluth East graduate, and guard Macie Dorow (Wisconsin-Milwaukee), a 2011 Duluth East graduate, might be the only ones in the previous 25 years.
Tuesday’s press conference was hosted by family friend Heather and Greg Johnson of Hermantown. About 20 friends and family mingled about, keeping a coronavirus-friendly distance for the most part. Some were already wearing Utah Utes apparel. With a Sport Court set up in the driveway, the Johnson stead has been Kneepkens’ home away from home during the pandemic as gyms remain closed.
While Osuchukwu couldn’t be there due to state high school league rules, friend Dyami Starks was present. Starks, a former Division I player for Bryant University, has coached Kneepkens for about the past three years through his Starks Academy.
“Gianna holds a special place with the academy,” Starks. “I remember she used to come into the gym, quiet, kind of unassuming. Obviously, she blossomed into something great, something special. I guess I could see it early on, but I really don’t like to put a ceiling on my kids. I just kind of say, you know, let’s see where it takes us, but I don’t think anybody saw this. I’m so, so, so proud of her, but I got to say, I’m not really surprised given the makeup of this kid.”