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For Utah and star freshman Gianna Kneepkens, things are quickly coming together

Utah expects to be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade, led by a true freshman

(John Locher | AP) Utah's Gianna Kneepkens (5) celebrates after Utah defeated Oregon in an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Pac-12 women's tournament Friday, March 4, 2022, in Las Vegas.

It wasn’t long ago that Lynne Roberts refused to mention anything about the NCAA Tournament without swirling in some superstition.

She would bring up seeding in the NCAA Tournament, then knock on wood. Or she would talk about the history of Utah making the tournament — the first time since 2011 — then cross her fingers.

For Roberts, the head coach of a team led by a true freshman, she knows better than to make definitive statements. Freshman-led teams are fickle that way. Even the surest of bets can sometimes turn.

But as of last weekend, Roberts broke the rule. After Utah made a run to the Pac-12 Championship game, paced by 24 points in the semifinal from freshman Gianna Kneepkens, Roberts confidently told reporters not only should Utah be in the tournament but it should be a high seed.

It signaled a shift. After a full regular season, she doesn’t see this as a freshman-driven team fighting to be recognized. She sees this as a tournament team, led by Gianna Kneepkens, a future pro.

“She’s just consistently steady. That is not typical of a freshman,” Roberts said. “You just look up and she has 15 points. If she wants to be a professional, she can.”

Utah’s dream season — going from five wins in a COVID-shortened year to 20 wins in 2022 — has largely been attributed to the arrival of the Minnesota native. Kneepkens leads the Utes in total points, points per game, total rebounds and minutes played. She is one of the most efficient scorers on an offense that ranks top 20 nationally in points scored (76 points per game).

And while her coach might have had some trepidation about trusting a freshman at first, that is gone now.

Kneepkens is the Pac-12 freshman of the year. Last week, she led No. 6 seeded Utah (20-11) past Cal, Washington State and Oregon on consecutive nights to make the Pac-12 championship game. She averaged 17 points per game in that span as Utah sealed a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade. Utah lost to Stanford in the championship game, but it already sealed its fate.

“Coming into college, it is hard to know what to expect,” said Kneepkens, who would later add that she was at a loss for words to describe Utah’s run in the conference tournament. “There is a big difference between college and high school. I just knew I needed to work as hard as I can.”

While it can be hard to project future success, high school can be a good barometer at times. And her high school resume reads like something out of legend.

Kneepkens was the Gatorade Player of the Year in Minnesota for 2021. The previous winner of that award was Paige Bueckers, UConn’s star point guard who won every national player of the year accolade during her freshman year of college.

Kneepkens averaged 31.2 points and 11.5 rebounds in her junior year. By her senior season, she averaged 43.1 points per game in the state tournament. She had 67 points in a single game and led her school to its first state tournament. Summed up, she tallied 3,704 career points, the fourth-most in the basketball-rich state of Minnesota.

“We knew she could score,” Roberts said. “I didn’t know it would translate as fast as it would translate, but it did really quickly.”

There was a point in early December when things began to click for Kneepkens. Utah was playing BYU, a team with a backcourt featuring multiple seniors. Roberts expected her young group to struggle. But instead, Kneepkens scored 29 points off the bench on 9-of-17 shooting. BYU won the game, but Roberts was left happily surprised.

“It was experience versus youth,” Roberts said on a podcast days later. “Their backcourt has played together for four years.”

It’s where Roberts wanted to get to.

The thing is, Utah might be getting there quicker than she thought. It is projected as a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN. It is a far cry from when Utah was picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 at the beginning of this season.

But just like Kneepkens, this is no longer a team unsure and trying to find its place. When the bracket is selected, there will be no superstitions. Utah is in and Kneepkens is its leader.