CEDAR FALLS — It’s fair to say that the University of Northern Iowa women’s basketball team wouldn’t be where it is today without the play of point guard Kennedy Kirkpatrick.
It’s also fair to say that Kirkpatrick wouldn’t be where she is today without the rest of the Panthers.
UNI needed an experienced point guard after the graduation of all-conference standout Madison Weekly. Kirkpatrick, a Lawrence, Kan., native who was at Bowling Green State, wanted to transfer to a program that better-served her long-term athletic, academic and personal goals.
It’s been a win-win situation that has helped this season’s Panthers emerge from the shadow of the unknown into a team to be reckoned with at this weekend’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament at the TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Illinois.
“Coach (Tanya) Warren actually recruited me out of high school, so I still had her number in my phone,” says Kirkpatrick, who spent one season as a redshirt and two in a reserve role at Bowling Green State. “This was one of the first schools I brought up when I sat down with my parents and kind of looked at everything.
“I thought it would be a really good fit not only from a basketball standpoint, but for my masters program that I wanted to get into and it was closer to home, which was nice for me because I’m really close to my family.”
There’s nothing easy about leaving one program and transitioning to a new school and a new program.
“I was leaving some of my best friends and a lot of connections I had made there, but you just kind of have to take a leap of faith,” says Kirkpatrick, a biology and pre-med student who plans to become a physician. “I honestly couldn’t be happier. I had expectations coming here and Coach Warren and everyone has just exceeded those.”
Kirkpatrick spent last season backing up Weekly and getting to know her new teammates while learning how UNI wants to play basketball. This season, she has stepped into the starting role and is averaging a team-best 10.7 points and 3.7 assists per game.
“We all knew coming into this year that you’re not going to be able to replace a Madison Weekly and everything she was able to bring, but I think Kennedy did a great job of stepping in with her experience and really took it to heart to understand what we needed from a leadership standpoint,” notes Warren.
“She has done a tremendous job, especially the last five weeks, of understanding when to get her teammates the ball and where they can score.”
Kirkpatrick is quick to point out that she’s had plenty of help growing into her role for the Panthers.
“I feel like Coach Warren and I connect really well because she played my position,” Kirkpatrick relates. “It’s been really nice from the start just because she has been able to mentor me. And then last year having Madison Weekly who was here four years as a starter and had a really successful career ... with her and Coach Warren, coming in I felt like I was in really good hands.
“From a point guard standpoint, you kind of have to figure out personality-wise how to communicate with people and what they respond to and just kind of try to figure out the ins and outs of how they work. It’s definitely been a learning process, but it has definitely paid off.”
Kirkpatrick’s teammates have done their part, too.
“Now as our point guard, she’s had to learn how to bring us all together,” notes junior Ellie Howell. “I think she’s come a long way, and we’ve been able to come together with her and make it more of a team effort.
“You can’t put all that pressure on her. I think it’s been a collective effort to help bring her into that role and help her flourish in that role.”
Kirkpatrick is proud to be a Panther and proud of how far her team has come this season. That’s not always easy for someone from Lawrence, Kansas, where people are still bitter about the day in 2010 when the UNI men’s basketball team upset the top-seeded Jayhawks in the NCAA Tournament.
“I still get booed when I wear my (UNI) gear downtown in the summer when I go home,” Kirkpatrick says with a laugh.