SALT LAKE CITY — When Kiana Moore steps onto the basketball court at the Huntsman Center on Friday night, she will be representing more than herself, her team or her school.
“I play for my grandmother,” Moore said ahead of Utah's Friday night Pink Game against USC. “She is a survivor of breast cancer, so this game means a lot to me.”
The chance to represent her grandmother in a game that is meant to raise awareness about breast cancer is something Moore appreciates in a way she couldn’t in her previous two seasons with Utah. That’s because while the California native has always felt at home on the hill, she hasn’t always felt like there was a critical role for her in the program.
“For me personally, it was a struggle my freshman and sophomore year,” she said. “I didn’t get the amount of minutes I wanted, but I had to stay the course. I’m not the type of person to go somewhere and then leave.”
Utah coach Lynne Roberts understands why players grow restless, and even transfer, when they are not earning enough minutes.
“Of course every kid in America wants to play and play the whole game,” Roberts said. “If they didn’t, that would be strange. But that doesn’t mean they get to, as it’s not equal opportunity. You have to earn the right to get major minutes.”
Roberts says she tries to be honest with her players about why they’re not playing and what they need to do to earn time on the court. In Moore’s case, it paid off for both the player and team as she just continued to work hard and trust her coaches.
“Not playing significant minutes as a freshman and sophomore is not that unusual,” Roberts said. “Just in today’s society, kids aren’t always taught to hang in there and stick with things. Ki and I have a really solid relationship and we communicate consistently, as we did for her first two years. She understood what she needed to do to get more minutes out there, (and) it was just a matter of putting the work in, which she has done, and now she’s reaping the rewards.”
Moore is averaging 7.6 points per game and is shooting 36 percent from 3-point range. Her solid play has helped the No. 17-ranked Utes continue their best start in school history. She stepped in as a starter after senior guard Daneesha Provo was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury.
“Ki is our best athlete and best on-ball defender,” Roberts said. “She is incredibly fast and strong. She also brings a toughness and a competitive intensity that she wears on her sleeve. If you’re not competing and playing hard, Ki will let you know.”
Moore said there weren’t many moments where she felt discouraged because she trusts both her teammates and her coaches and always felt supported.
“I feel like everybody who doesn’t play always has that feeling (of not belonging),” she said. “I did at one point. But you just have to stay the course, trust the process. I knew I was young and had a lot to learn. … I just kind of sat back and did what I needed to do in the season and off-season to put in the work to get better.”
The result, Moore said, is a satisfaction and joy that increases every time she’s able to contribute to the team’s success. The Utes are coming off back-to-back losses to higher ranked teams (Oregon and Oregon State), and she said the strength of this Utah team is the diversity of its talent and its ability to play looking forward.
“We all believe in each other, and we all have capabilities,” she said. “We have different talents, and we all just kind of click together. … We’re just going to shake off last weekend because we know we played both teams really well. The outcome wasn’t what we wanted, but we know we have a lot to work on, and we’re going to bounce back and re-attack.”
Moore said she’ll find extra motivation in playing at home and for her grandmother, as well as against one of the schools she grew up admiring.
“This game means a lot to me,” she said. “They’re a Southern California school. They’re kind of that circled team on my list. It will be a really good game.”
While it is satisfying for Moore to have the kind of success she’s been working for, no one is happier for her than Roberts.Comment on this story
“I couldn’t be more proud of a player than I am Ki,” she said. “It’s so rewarding to see a player in this era of instant gratification stick with it and just quietly work her tail off, be ready for the opportunity, and just take it and run with it. I’ve always described Ki as a ‘foxhole’ person. … (She’s) the people you want in your foxhole to fight with you. No doubt, Ki is (in) my foxhole. She’s a winner.”
Because Friday’s 7 p.m. game against USC is the team’s Pink Game, any fan wearing pink gets free admission to the game.