By Andy Kriegh
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Growing up just down the road in Olathe, Kan., Natalie Knight was a fan of Kansas basketball from the beginning. She watched and learned from the Jayhawks.
“Whenever I had a chance I would turn on the TV and just watch a game,” said Knight. “I would pay attention to the different moves different players did and try to copy them.”
Knight was a high school standout at Olathe South, where, as a junior, she led the Falcons to a state title in 2010 and was named the 2011 Gatorade Kansas High School Player of the Year following her senior year. She was heavily recruited by Kansas, the school she had always wanted to play for.
“I definitely loved KU and wanted to play here if I had the option,” said Knight. “I had three uncles play here so it means a lot to play for Kansas. Coming in as a freshman, I didn’t know what to expect. I was a little nervous for the first few games but I figured things out fast. I did know that I was going to have to play harder.”
Knight took on a significant role with the Jayhawks as soon as she stepped on campus, as she started in all 34 games as a true freshman. She excelled at the high school level and continued that success at the collegiate level.
“There is no rollercoaster, emotionally, with her,” Kansas head coach Bonnie Henrickson said. “We tell freshmen to stay off the rollercoaster by accepting the process and grind, which she did flawlessly. She also did what was asked of her and played consistently.”
Knight’s stats reflect her consistency; she led the team with a 38.7 three-point field goal percentage and also led the Jayhawks with the fewest turnovers (41) for the season.
“Coach Bonnie (Henrickson) told me what my responsibilities were and my role on the team,” Knight said. “The most important thing, protect the ball and get it to the upperclassmen, the scorers, at the time,” Knight explains.
Those upperclassmen included the talented trio of Angel Goodrich, Carolyn Davis and Monica Engelman. It was a growing experience where Knight learned a lot from the upperclassman group, who all play professionally now.
“They taught me so much and challenged me everyday,” Knight said. “They definitely left a legacy that motivated me to work hard to help continue the success of the Kansas women’s basketball program.”
Knight’s past experiences and work ethic would help her take on the biggest challenge of her career.
She was having a career game, the type of game that she had dreamt about having grown up watching Kansas basketball.
On Jan. 30, 2013, Knight and the Jayhawks found themselves down 18 points to No. 23 Iowa State in Allen Fieldhouse. Knight helped lead an inspiring comeback by scoring a career-high 21 points, including eight points in a three-minute span, to force overtime. An overtime that Knight would not see any playing time in.
While collecting herself for a lay-up with 1:46 left in the second half that would be her eighth field goal for the game, Knight felt a sudden snap in her right knee.
“I’ve never been hurt, ever. I didn’t know what happened,” Knight shared. “My first thought when it happened was, ‘I’ve got to finish this layup”.
Knight learned she had torn her ACL, a serious season-ending injury.
“I didn’t know how to handle it at first,” said Knight. “I had to go back to the training room while I wanted to be with the team,” said Knight. “It was hard to watch; I had to sit on the bench during overtime while I wanted to be out on the court.”
KU got the victory in overtime, but lost its starting guard for the season. Knight had a long road back to recovery, requiring rigorous work and dedication, which Knight knew something about.
Knight has the work ethic where she will take a challenge and conquer it no matter what it takes. Not many basketball players, professional or amateur, can suffer an ACL tear mid-play and still have the commitment and focus to finish the play and score. That one play captured the essence of Knight’s lifetime commitment to success and drive to compete.
The 2012 season, Knight’s freshman campaign, culminated in an inspirational run to the Sweet 16 after Kansas upset No. 3 seed Delaware and the nation’s leading scorer Elena Delle Donne in overtime, a game where Knight saw 40 minutes of action. Kansas basketball had repeated success finishing the 2013 season with a 21-13 record and making another improbable run to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed. The difference between the tournament runs was that the second time around, Knight was on the bench.
“It was definitely hard to sit there and watch, but I was so proud of everybody for stepping up in that type of situation,” reflected Knight. “Seeing my teammates playing so tough encouraged me to work hard with rehab to get back as soon as I could to help the team.”
That drive to contribute to the team is what motivated Knight through those tough rehabilitation sessions.
“It was a lot of rehab,” said Knight. “When others were going to cool places for breaks or going home for the holidays, I stayed back and continued to rehab. I worked on getting my lateral quickness, speed and agility back. Our trainers were amazing. I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
Knight has made a significant impression on everyone she has worked with, including her teammates and coach.
“She leads by example,” Henrickson said. “She’s a young lady who embraces the tough part of what playing at the Division I level requires, the year-round training that comes with it. You put her in a different situation; such as rehab; and she handled it the same way. She did all the rehab, all the extra work she had to do. She just transferred her work ethic from the court to the rehab standpoint.”
Knight’s road toward rehabilitation was a trying experience, but she saw through it like any challenge she has faced. The journey is not over now that she has made it back onto the court. The junior guards current challenge is leading a relatively young Kansas team, one that features six underclassmen on a roster of 12.
Knight got cleared to play for the 2013-14 season and was rewarded by being voted team captain by her peers alongside junior forward Bunny Williams.
Just 11 months after suffering the torn ACL, Knight is playing nearly 32 minutes a game while averaging 8.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Her statistics are good for fourth on the team in scoring and second on the team in assists.
“I’m still working a lot to become a better leader and I’ve got a lot of work to do,” Knight said.
Knight continues to help her team prepare for the tough road ahead as Big 12 Conference action kicks off against West Virginia on Jan. 2, 2014. The Big 12 is one of the strongest conferences in the country. It currently has four teams in the AP Top 25 and the top-five teams in the league having only five combined losses between them.
“The Big 12 is tough every year and we know we got to bring it every game,” Knight said. “I mean anybody can win on any given night. We just need to put ourselves in the position to win.”
Although KU currently sits at 7-5 overall, the team, like its captain, is up for the challenge. Knight has worked throughout this season as diligently as she worked toward rehabilitating from the ACL injury.
“My personal goal and our team goal is to continue improving, I think just taking a step toward getting better everyday is key for us,” Knight said. “We want to continue the legacy that last year’s seniors left for us to continue.Knight knows this more than anyone else, but the only way to move forward is one step at a time.