Utah Women’s Basketball Still Evolving Through Gianna Kneepkens’ Absence

Dec 15, 2023, 9:00 AM

SALT LAKE CITY – Utah women’s basketball received a tough blow almost a week ago that Gianna Kneepkens will miss the remainder of their season with an injury.

Kneepkens has been the Utes’ second-leading scorer, leaving a pretty big hole to fill in her absence.

The good news is that head coach Lynne Roberts thinks she has players on the team who can help ease that pain, however, the bad news is that it may take some time as the Utes evolve into their new roster “normal”.

The Alissa Pili Effect

If you haven’t guessed, Alissa Pili is Utah’s leading scorer and as impossible as it seems, Roberts says she has stepped her game up even more with Kneepkens out.

“It would be very easy for her to be ego-centric,” Roberts said of Pili. “Like, this is about me now, and she is about us winning. I’ve noticed more leadership from her. More composure. I think she understands the assignment.”

In the last two games Utah has played in, Pili has really helped to carry the team through Kneepkens’ absence having a career game against the No. 1 team in the country.

As much fun as it has been for Roberts and the rest of the Utes to see Pili ball out and get her due credit, everybody knows that is not a sustainable model for the long-haul and that work needs to be done to even out the workload.

“I think, you lose someone like Gianna and it’s not zero sum where she steps out and one person fills that,” Roberts said. “She’s an All-American. It’s impossible. I think it’s a sum of the parts. Dasia Young has got to be consistent. Maty Wilke- we have got to get her going. She’s a good player, but still isn’t playing confidently and we need her to get going. Kennady McQueen is no longer icing on the cake, she is part of the cake. Jenna [Johnson] is always going to give us what she’s got, but Lani White needs to step up. It’s the sum of the parts to replace someone like G, and Alissa can’t- we can’t count on her.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for many of the players listed by Roberts is being able to adapt their mindset from being a bench player to a starter. Thankfully, Roberts believes it’s mostly about time and reps in a new role, especially for Young who is the primary replacement for Kneepkens at the moment.

“Its a different role,” Roberts said. “That’s what I told her. Her role is now this and there isn’t as much room for you to have a good game or have a bad game or have 100% focus or not. There is a responsibility that comes with that spot, but this is what you work for. She wants it, she’s ready, but it’s a total different mindset.”

“We’ve only had one week if you think about it,” Roberts continued. “One week to kind of adjust and it’s not going to take just one week. I’m looking forward to these next two games to hopefully play some of those other players more, get them some confidence and rhythm I guess is the right word as we head into Pac-12.”

Issy Palmer Update

Another player who can help ease the loss of Kneepkens for the Utes is Issy Palmer. Unfortunately, Palmer has been out since Utah traveled to Baylor, but Roberts is hopeful she will be good to go by the first of the year, just in time to start diving into conference play.

“So she has a medical issue that we are trying to figure out a return to play,” Roberts said. “It might be by the end of the year or by the New Year which is what we are hoping for. We could really use her, obviously, but it’s one of those things that she’s just not ready yet, but she will be.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on XInstagram, and Threads: @BodkinKSLsports

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Utah Women’s Basketball Still Evolving Through Gianna Kneepkens’ Absence