Girls basketball: Kneepkens, News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year, was something special for Hilltoppers

Jon Nowacki, Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
·6 min read

May 4—Duluth Marshall's Gianna Kneepkens was approached by one of her best friends shortly after the Hilltoppers' dramatic 94-91 loss to Providence Academy in the Class AA girls basketball state quarterfinals March 30 at St. Cloud Tech.

"Gianna, you scored a lot of points," the friend said.

As in, Gianna you scored a heckuva lot of points, 67 in fact, a Minnesota girls basketball state record.

"I just said, 'Oh, really?" Kneepkens recalled, "because I was still a little upset we lost. I just wanted to win."

I just wanted to win. In an era of prima donna quarterbacks and unfathomable salaries, how refreshing are those words to hear. That's the pedigree of one of five finalists for Minnesota Ms. Basketball, and the 2020-21 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year.

While Kneepkens will soon go off to the University of Utah to continue her college basketball career at the NCAA Division I level, she leaves behind an undeniable legacy of achievement on and off the court: her state-best 43.1 points per game season pales in comparison, to her at least, than her 4.0 grade-point average at one of Minnesota's mostly highly regarded academic schools.

Kneepkens, a 5-foot-11 forward who projects as a 2-guard at the next level, exits as the Northland's all-time girls basketball scoring leader with 3,704 career points, fourth all-time in Minnesota.

"Little girls throughout the region, even the Minneapolis area and all over Minnesota and parts of Wisconsin, want to be like Gianna," Marshall coach C.J. Osuchukwu said. "Anywhere I go, from coaching AAU boys to coaching AAU girls, coaches come up to me and ask, 'Oh, man, you're the one who coached the Kneepkens girl? And I was like, 'Yeah.' And then they're like, 'How was it?' Everybody just wants to know. I think sometimes we don't really respect greatness until years after, so I don't really think this is going to hit me until she's like gone gone."

Osuchukwu, 27, just finished his third year as Marshall's coach. He was incredibly lucky to inherit such a talent in his first stint as a head basketball coach.

A "once-in-a-lifetime player" as Osuchukwu often liked to say, but the flip side of that is that Osuchukwu will probably not have another one.

"Yeah," Osuchukwu said, laughing. "That's a fact, that's definitely a fact."

There are some great players on the News Tribune's All-Area team, college-bound players, and some really good players who didn't even make it, but Kneepkens' selection as player of the year was as close as you get to a slam dunk.

Osuchukwu is going to have to go back to grassroots coaching, teaching younger players the basics of shooting and rebounding and working on their games. He's not going to have too many who immediately recognize what the opponent is trying to do, switching between zones and man defenses, throwing double and triple teams at her. He's going to have to try to instill toughness in players who might be a little soft, unlike Gianna, who helped the Hilltoppers make their first state tournament in 20 years last season when she was visibly limping up and down the court.

Make no mistake, Kneepkens is a competitor, and that's why that final game, a loss, was so hard to take. But what a way to go out. Kneepkens fouled out right at the end in a last-gasp effort to try to get the ball back. All facets of her game were on display that night as she dropped 3-pointers from five feet beyond the arc, went coast to coast for layups, made sneaky steals, blocked shots out of nowhere and repeatedly glided around defenders like they were wearing shoes made of ready-mix concrete.

It certainly makes a case for greatest individual performance in Minnesota girls basketball annals.

"Gianna Kneepkens refused to let her team lose," Providence Academy coach Conner Goetz said afterward. "I've never seen someone score like she has. Even the little things like getting loose rebounds, tips of the ball, steals, she did everything and then some to help her team win."

Kneepkens, a six-year varsity player and five-year starter, reached 50 or more points six times in her career, including five times this season.

Providence Academy won despite not making a 3-pointer. Kneepkens had 10 of the Hilltoppers' 14.

"Not a single 3 — isn't that crazy?" Goetz added. "But Gianna made enough for my whole lifetime. I'll be seeing her make shots in my nightmares."

It will be interesting to see how that game translates to the next level. Slender in build, Kneepkens will have to keep getting stronger — she knows that — but that type of range is hard to defend. She said she received 17 Division I offers, including from Minnesota, but Utah just felt like the right fit, academically, athletically, spiritually.

Besides the 67 points and bucket of 3-pointers, Kneepkens finished her last game with 17 rebounds, five steals, five assists and two blocks.

While Kneepkens wasn't aware just how many points she was scoring — it's not her thing — it quickly became obvious to the COVID-crowd in attendance they were watching something special unfold as the scoreboard kept track on the one end, 40 points, then 50, then 60, in quick order as she tried to will the Hilltoppers to victory despite team foul trouble.

Right before the clock clicked zero, the inevitable soon to come, Kneepkens had to come off the court, foul No. 5 right glowing like a sore thumb right next to her 67 points. She immediately started crying but found comfort in her coach's arms, the sobs audible for all in attendance to hear.

The crowd sat in stunned silence. They'd never seen anything like that, and probably never will again.

"I wouldn't be where I am without him," Kneepkens said of her coach. "He allowed me to play my game, he didn't hold me back. I'm super grateful for everything he's done, and for my teammates and how far we got, and all the good times we had..

"It was a really good year. It didn't end exactly how we wanted. I still wish we would have won but it happened how it happened, and it happened for a reason. I'm able to learn from that, and now I'm ready for the next step."

Northland's Top Five Girls Basketball Scorers

Gianna Kneepkens, Duluth Marshall, 3,704

Megan Gustafson, South Shore, 3,229

Chelsea Mason, Mountain Iron-Buhl, 3,035

Jolene Anderson, South Shore, 2,881

Darby Youngstrom, North Woods, 2,851