Burns finds her place at Minnesota

When Kiauna Burns was growing up, she always felt like there was something missing from her life.
The sophomore point guard on the Gophers women’s basketball team was born in Kankakee, Ill., but she moved around a lot because her stepfather was a career military man. That made it difficult for Burns to stay in contact with her father, Kenneth Aikens, who lives in Minneapolis.
During her first two years of high school, Kiauna lived with her mother, Audrey Sabbs, and her stepfather in St. Anne, Ill., a small town 70 miles southeast of Chicago. Even though Burns was born in Illinois, she’s always been drawn to the Gophers.
As a sophomore in high school, Burns attended her first college basketball game at the University of Illinois. As fate would have it, the Illini were playing the Gophers. During the game, an 88-78 Illinois win, Burns noticed she liked Minnesota’s colors.
When her assistant high school basketball coach, Becky Larson, moved to Litchfield, Minn., Burns decided to go with them. She moved in with Becky and her husband Jim, and enrolled at Litchfield High School for her junior year in 1994. The couple eventually became her legal guardians.
“I wanted to be someplace where I’d get a chance for a scholarship,” Burns said. “I thought that in a different high school in this state especially, I’d have a better chance of getting into this school.”
She made an official campus visit to Minnesota after moving to Litchfield, but she had already committed to the Gophers before her visit. For Burns, it wasn’t just a chance to play basketball — it was a chance to fill the void left by not being around her father.
“It’s just always been something that I wanted to do, to come here,” Burns said. “Even when I was younger and lived in Illinois, I wanted to come up here and go to school, mainly because I wanted to be closer to my dad. I’ve never been around him before.”
Burns and her father are getting along well in their first extended time together. Burns is also trying to convince her mother to move to Minneapolis so she can be close to both of her parents at the same time.
“She’s very close to Jim and Becky, her guardians, and she’s very close to her mom and her dad,” teammate Angie Iverson said. “KB is a very good family person.”
Burns, a 5-foot-7 guard, started out playing raw and erratically as a freshman last year. She struggled with the transition to the college game, playing significant minutes because of injuries to the team’s other point guards.
After the initial shock wore off, Burns settled down at about this time a year ago and became one of the better players on last year’s 4-24 team.
She sank two free throws with 15.8 seconds to go on Feb. 2, 1997, to help the Gophers to a 66-64 win over Ohio State at the Sports Pavilion. That win ended the team’s record 32-game Big Ten losing streak.
Burns is averaging 10.7 points, and 2.4 rebounds per game for the Gophers this season. She is fifth in the Big Ten in steals per game at 2.33 and her assist average of 4.93 per game is sixth best in the conference.
The 20-year-old made the all-tournament teams at the Dial Soap Basketball Classic and the Shocker Shootout earlier this season and has scored in double figures in nine of Minnesota’s 15 games.
But Burns’ contributions to the team go far beyond the stat sheet.
“She’s a strong offensive player,” Gophers coach Cheryl Littlejohn said. “She has great quickness and an ability to go to the hole and score, and I think that really gives the opposing team a threat to deal with.”
Burns began the season as a starter but was recently moved to the bench in favor of freshman walk-on Rachel Young. But the move hasn’t affected Burns’ play.
“I just want to improve and be able to contribute to the team and do anything that they ask me,” she said.
The sophomore has been happy so far at Minnesota — as long as she gets to spend plenty of time with her father.
“It’s been very good for her to see her dad more,” Iverson said. “She has a very good relationship with her dad.”
Burns’ father has come to most of her home games this season, and her mother has also made some trips up to Minneapolis to see her daughter play.
“With my mom, we’re always going to have a good relationship,” Burns said. “I’m just getting to the point with my dad now that everything is going well. We had to get to know each other. I hadn’t really spent time with him until last year.”