“Super Kianna” Endures, Gives Davidson Women’s Basketball a Boost
By Justin Parker
In many ways, Davidson guard Kianna Speight is having the senior season she always imagined.
She’s averaging a career-best 11.3 points per game as one of four Wildcats scoring in double figures She’s infusing coach Gayle Coats Fulks‘ lineup with energy and heady, veteran leadership. And she’s playing her best basketball for a team that enters Sunday’s game at Fordham with a 4-1 record in Atlantic 10 play.
Her path to success, though, is one she could not really have imagined. Yet it’s made her the player she is today, the one Coats Fulks has seen progress significantly since she took reins of the program after Speight’s sophomore year. Upon arrival in Davidson, Coats Fulks met individually with each player, and at that point in time, she wasn’t sure what she had in Speight, who appeared to be at a career crossroads.
Speight, though, has become a dependable, coachable, leader on the floor for the Wildcats. And in her best moments, when everything is going right, the coaches call her “Super Kianna.”
“She’s been two feet in,” said Coats Fulks. “She just surprises me all the time. I watch her and think, ‘That’s not the kid I met with in May of 2017.’ She’s a different one, in a good way.”
Bumps in the road
Adversity is as much a part of sports as painted lines, bouncing balls and the squeak of Curry 6s in Belk Arena, but the doses vary from player to player, often greatly.
And Speight has had her share of challenges. She’s endured two ACL tears on the basketball court. Both were non-contact injuries in fast break situations.
“Something you do hundreds of times in your career and just that one time …” she said.
The first tear, in her left knee, came while attempting a pass during her junior year of high school, in what is a critical recruiting time for a college-bound player. She missed the season – her Conway team won the 7A state title in Arkansas without her – and quickly, most colleges stopped recruiting her. Davidson did not, however, and when she visited the college she initially knew little about, she was still having trouble walking. Before she ever played another high school game, she signed with the Wildcats.
“It just felt like a home away from home,” she said.
After returning to form as a prep senior, she had a typical college freshman season, coming off the bench to play about 11 minutes per game. Then she started seven games as a sophomore, had multiple 20-point games and averaged 10.4 points before she tore the ACL in her right knee against Mercer. This time she was pursuing a transition play as a defender.
The shock of the same kind of injury outweighed the pain.
“I definitely think the second time it was more of an emotional than physical thing,” she said. “The second time was harder because I knew how much it took to get back to that point and also it being the second time, it felt different – ‘I don’t want to put myself through this again, what if it happens one more time, I don’t know if I can do this emotionally all over again.'”
She still didn’t know when she met with Coats Fulks a few months later, but slowly, she regained her desire to play the game she loves.
There’s more to Speight’s journey to wearing No. 0 in red and black than overcoming injuries, however.
While growing up, she did more than play basketball. She tried softball and a few other sports along the way, but she stuck with cheerleading until the 10th grade. She cheered for school teams and on the competitive circuit, and she believes her time cheering (and in dance) still helps her on the hardwood, including with body control and balance. Spending so much time learning routines gave her an appreciation for the pursuit of perfection as well.
“It’s very meticulous, very detail-oriented,” she said. “It’s definitely competitive, and it challenges you in many different ways.”
Her favorite part of cheering was doing flips – “I was good at it,” she said – but she’s not sure leading the Wildcats onto the court with a series of Ozzie Smith somersaults would be such a good idea.
“I would if Coach would let me,” she said with a smile.
Back to the future
That’s the amount of time, after being fully cleared to play, that Speight said it took for her to really feel like she was playing the game the way she wanted. Coats Fulks saw a notable change in the second half of last season.
“It was almost like a light bulb went off,” said Coats Fulks. “She hasn’t really looked back after that.”
Speight found she had a “new fire” to play the game because she had it taken away – twice. So she decided to go all in and give it everything she has. Coats Fulks said she plays with a fearlessness that is based in intelligence; she’s not reckless. Her game has adjusted and matured, first because of the injuries and then by seeing the game from a new perspective.
“You definitely learn your strengths and capitalize on them because you are a different player,” said Speight.
Now, she’s enjoying her senior season, while applying to nursing schools and playing with teammates she loves.
Their shared goal is to take the Wildcats into uncharted ground in the A-10 and return to the postseason. A versatile roster, with numerous capable scorers, has paid off so far and there’s potential for much success.
Speight leads the way with 39 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and when she becomes “Super Kianna,” the team gets a boost of energy only a charismatic leader can provide. Her play – and spirit – provides a lift.
“You can see it,” said Coats Fulks.