How Utah basketball’s Gianna Kneepkens responded for the Utes after season-ending injury

Kneepkens’ injury nearly derailed Utah’s season. Now, she’s part of the reason the Utes have a shot in March.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah basketball player Gianna Kneepkens takes a brief break as she watches her teammates run through drills on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. Kneepkens broke multiple bones in her foot during a game on Dec. 2.

A few days after the injury that might define Utah’s season, Gianna Kneepkens positioned herself toward the front of Utah’s film room, crutches hanging off to the side and teammates around her, and wept until she couldn’t speak.

The Utes cried for their star, whose despair looked so far removed from the scoring dynamo and All-American candidate who could do whatever she wanted on a basketball court.

“It was the most I’ve cried since it happened,” Kneepkens said. “That and just being with my mom. It’s easy to be what you’re really feeling with your mom, especially when she can make you feel better.”

The Utes cried, too, for their season; the Final Four they wanted to chase and the national attention that Kneepkens promised to deliver in 2024. This was the player, they were convinced, that was going to bring Utah among the game’s elite.

“Whether we wanted to say it or not, maybe there was some iffiness to” whether Utah believed it could do it anymore, guard Kennady McQueen said.

And when tears ran dry, the Utes promised to be 5% better — to remake a Final Four team without its engine.

More quietly, as everyone left the room, Kneepkens hung back and made a plan, too.

What if she could help save their season even with a broken foot?

The unraveling

Utah coach Lynne Roberts knew it was bad almost immediately after Kneepkens fell in a heap in front of her.

Utah was putting the finishing touches on a blowout win over BYU. Kneepkens was humming along, cruising to 17 points as the offense crept past 80.

Except when Kneepkens went to end the game on a stepback three, her foot didn’t cooperate. She planted her right and then tried to bring it back to her left. But instead of bouncing into her shooting motion, her right foot popped and she collapsed onto the floor.

At first, she thought her shoe had broken. She looked down and saw it was fine. Then, she knew it was serious.

The game halted. Roberts urged her not to think the worst, but Kneepkens repeated, “This isn’t good. This isn’t good,” again and again.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Gianna Kneepkens (5) injures her foot as she is helped off the court by athletic trainer Christina Jones, left, and head coach Lynne Roberts during the end of game play against BYU in NCAA basketball at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023.

Foot swelling, Kneepkens drove to the hospital with her mother and head trainer Christina Jones. They did X-rays and MRIs until 1:30 a.m. Kneepkens hoped her timeline for recovery would be two or three months, back in time for March. Doctors said it was a Lisfranc fracture and she was done for the year.

What was Utah going to do without her?

This entire season, the preseason top-five ranking and momentum from a Sweet 16 run, were predicated on Kneepkens being a driving force.

Sure, Utah had Alissa Pili — a presumed first-round pick in the WNBA draft — and all five starters back. But Kneepkens was the end-of-shot clock playmaker. She was the player who shot 54% from three and opened up space for Utah’s arsenal of shooters. Pili inside and Kneepkens everywhere else — that was the formula that fueled the No. 1 offense in the country. Not to mention, this was a championship window in Pili’s final year of eligibility.

Off the court, she was the glue of a tight-knit team. Lindsey Kirschman, Utah’s sports performance director, joked Kneepkens was always easy to spot because she was usually the center of a card game or ribbing some teammates.

“She is so serious about the game, but had this unique ability to de-stress everyone,” Kirschman said.

When Kneepkens got back to her house late on the night of her injury, McQueen was there to greet her.

“There weren’t a lot of words,” McQueen said. “It was sad because I truly don’t think there’s anyone that loves the game more than G.”

Kneepkens wouldn’t disagree. Her work ethic became the standard. She’d get up at the facility an hour and a half before practice to shoot, go through drills with the team and stay late to get up more.

In the summer, she’d hit 1,200 a week and it fueled her to become the Pac-12 freshman of the year, a fringe All-American her sophomore year and invited to Kelsey Plum’s elite camp last summer.

But as she went to the hotel, she’d have to recalibrate. She needed to be something different for Utah — not the work-a-holic basketball star. And she needed to start as soon as possible.

Kneepkens’ way in

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah basketball player Gianna Kneepkens makes her way back from a season-ending injury as she trains alongside her teammates on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. The Utah guard broke multiple bones in her foot during a game on Dec. 2, 2023.

The days after Kneepkens’ injury sent Utah into a predictable spiral.

The team’s first trip was a gauntlet. It flew to Philadelphia to play Saint Joe’s and bused six hours down to Connecticut to play in the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic — a scheduled showcase of the best teams.

Utah’s offense hit a season-low 74 points against St. Joe’s. It followed it up with a competitive game against No. 1 South Carolina, losing 78-69, but the offense boiled down to Pili’s 37 points and not much else.

In the long downtime between games, Kirschman saw a quiet that hadn’t been there. “In the hotel, with G, usually people sit around tables and play games. Laughs. And that time people just did their own thing. There wasn’t this big group.”

By the time Pac-12 play hit, Utah was in a tailspin. It lost to Colorado and Arizona. Against Arizona State, it scored 58 points. Something needed to change.

Kneepkens was ready to answer the call.

Before surgery, she talked to Roberts about helping scout. She always pored over film — watching WNBA games around the apartment at night — but it was through the lens of a shooting guard. Now, she’d watch full Pac-12 games and dissect every piece on the court. She’d send notes to the assistant handling that team’s scout.

When she rejoined the team, she presented what she called “G’s keys” or “Kneepkens’ Knowledge” that centered on tendencies. When USC’s JuJu Watkins came to town, she wanted players guarding her to get into her and make every shot difficult. Watkins ended with 26 points, her season average, but took 22 shots.

“She was worn down,” Kneepkens said.

Against UCLA, she cautioned guards to be patient. This defense is aggressive, she said, use it against them or you’ll be on your back foot the whole night. Utah scored 94 points.

During games, the staff put her on the bench with a clipboard tracking points of emphasis. Against UCLA, it was missed layups (Utah had five before the half) and missed box outs.

“She’s more vocal than she’s been,” Kirschman said.

Away from basketball, Kneepkens still wanted to compete with her teammates. She needed it as much as they did.

“She’s the type of person that’s at home in competition,” Kirschman said. “Competition is fun for her. You read it on her face that’s it’s not stressful. It’s, ‘Yes, let’s go.’… We were all worried about her when basketball was taken away.”

She had surgery on a Friday and by Monday she met with a dietitian. Before she pretty much ate what she wanted, candy being her crutch.

She texted Kirschman that she was ready for a workout plan. The running joke before was that she had “noodle arms.” Kirschman formulated a routine focused on hitting the upper body and the core. On days off, Kneepkens comes in for extra work. She is up seven days a week, a way to give her hope that next year she’ll, “return and be better than I was.”

“I think she’ll tell you, the weight room wasn’t her favorite place before,” Jones said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah guard Gianna Kneepkens works on her three point shot as she makes her way back from a season-ending injury on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.

When the pain medication stopped, she went to the team’s 8:30 a.m. weight room sessions. With a boot on, she did exercises with her right leg. For cardio, she hit the assault bike with one leg.

It still isn’t normal. That much was clear when McQueen moved her bed to the main floor of the house because she couldn’t navigate the stairs. Kneepkens felt so bad she tried to Venmo her.

“There’s still part of me that’s like, ‘Dang, I want get in when there’s two minutes left,’” she said.

But it was progress. And the team fed off of it.

A different team

Six weeks after Kneepkens broke down crying, she returned to the film room. Except this time there were no tears.

Roberts was talking about Utah taking down the No. 2 team in the nation, UCLA, and handing No. 6 USC the same fate. For the first time since Kneepkens’ injury, the Utes had real life.

When she opened it up for comments, Kneepkens’ voice was the first to ring out — talking about how talented UCLA was and how this win put Utah back into the hunt.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah women’s basketball coach Lynne Roberts gets ready to review tape with her players at the University of Utah on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. Utah guard Gianna Kneepkens has been working hard to recover from her season-ending injury as she gets around with a leg scooter.

And there was Kneepkens’ response to the injury.

She isn’t playing, but she’s become the contributor in a different way. When Utah runs 5-on-0 offense, she’s the one pulling up a seat next to the court and talking to guards about slip screens. She’s the one who wheels over to the centers after drills and asks what they saw.

Off the court, she’s become the unifier again. She laughed that one of her teammates, Maty Wilke, bought her a stuffed octopus for her scooter and named it Sheldon. It’s simple, but it means something.

Utah responded. It’s reinvented itself into a possible March contender and is a few games out of first.

“Perfect timing,” Kneepkens said. “We’ve just got to keep pushing forward.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hitting the weights, Utah basketball player Gianna Kneepkens makes her way back from a season-ending injury as she trains alongside her teammates on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.