Burns turns unfamiliar position into opportunity

Aaron Kirscht

Kiauna Burns is a quiet, unassuming sort. She speaks in a near-whisper, seemingly afraid to make too much of herself.
Still, every time Burns’ name pops up, a few words invariably follow: quick, talented, explosive.
Though only a freshman, Burns has been thrust into the spotlight. She’s taken over at a relatively unfamiliar position, point guard, for the Gophers women’s basketball team.
But as far as she’s concerned, it’s no big deal.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Burns said. “I like the position. I’ve had a few bad games, but I’m working on getting through it.”
Burns is averaging more than 25 minutes per game, by far the most for a Gophers freshman this season. And most of those minutes have come at the point, in place of junior Jaime Ellis, whose playing time has been cut down because of a stress fracture she aggravated a two weeks ago.
Her inexperience and unfamiliarity with the college game has shown through at times. Burns has committed 22 turnovers in her last three games but scored only nine points.
Nevertheless, coach Linda Hill-MacDonald and her teammates remain impressed.
“I think she’s doing really well,” Hill-MacDonald said. “This year in particular is a great opportunity for her to get plenty of experience and become very confident. And practice after practice, game after game, that confidence is growing.”
Burns has been in unfamiliar surroundings before. She followed her assistant coach from St. Anne, Ill., to Litchfield, Minn., just over two years ago, in search of a change of atmosphere and the opportunity to play college ball.
The former came in a hurry. Litchfield, which lies 75 miles west of the Twin Cities, is a mostly white town of about 6,000 people. But Burns’ high school coach, Jeff Wollin, remembers Burns fitting in easily.
“When she came here, we didn’t really know what to expect,” Wollin said. “She came from a different area, and obviously we don’t have a lot of black students in school. There were a lot of unknown factors.
“She turned out to be as good a person off the court as she was on. She fit in very well, and she was well liked by all her teammates and classmates.”
Burns made an impact on the court almost immediately. In her first season at Litchfield, she averaged nearly 15 points and seven rebounds a game, helping the team to a 21-4 record.
Her performance drew the attention of several schools around the Midwest, including Minnesota. Burns didn’t take too long to decide; she committed to Minnesota before her senior year.
Burns was recruited and expected to see time as a shooting guard, but some personnel problems led Hill-MacDonald to phone Burns this summer to ask if she’d be willing to pick up some of the slack at point guard.
“She’s the type of person who says, ‘Wherever you need me, coach,'” Hill-MacDonald said. “She’s got a great attitude about that.”
Burns wasn’t expected to run the offense this much, but Ellis’ injury threw her into the lineup. After a nice start, including season highs in points (10) against Wyoming and assists (9) against Fairfield, she’s fallen off. Both highs came in the Gophers’ only two wins.
“I love her,” Ellis said. “She knows what to do, and as her confidence goes up, she’s going to have the ability to get that done. She has a great sense of the floor, where her teammates are and where the bucket is.”
Before she’s finished, Burns’ reputation is likely to spread across the Big Ten.
“When you compare her to the rest of the Big Ten in terms of overall ability, she’s right up there,” Hill-MacDonald said. “(Burns) can match up with any of the point guards in the Big Ten as far as talent is concerned. She will gain the experience as time goes by.”
That may be true, but don’t expect Burns to fess up to it.
“I’m not one to speak out about what I’ve accomplished,” she said. “I don’t pay any attention to that. I’m just a basketball player.”