Headed into the semifinals of the 16-team Women’s Basketball Invitational, the team has a very realistic chance of winning the tournament.
Win or lose, they’ll be losing Kiara Buford, one of the most prolific scorers the program has ever seen.
“It’s going to be a tremendous loss,” head coach Pam Borton said of Buford. “She has played for four years; you can never replace the experience, so it’s going to be a big hole, losing Kiara.”
On March 18, Buford became just the seventh player in program history to score 1,500 points.
Buford currently has 1,508 points and with one game — or possibly two — left in the season, her spot as the Gophers seventh- leading scorer is cemented.
“I think that’s special — just to know that you’re going to be remembered no matter what happens after this or where you go,” Buford said.
She has experienced individual success her entire career but said she doesn’t think about her accomplishments while she’s playing.
“In order for me to stay level while I’m playing, I don’t really get into stats, but now that I’m almost done, I can appreciate them more. Getting past 1,500 [points] was a big thing,” Buford said.
She has received conference honors the past four years. She was named to the All-Big Ten Honorable Mention Team the past three years and to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team the year before that.
Buford didn’t start her freshman year, but she played in every game.
The Gophers made the NCAA tournament in Buford’s freshman year as a No. 10 seed. They advanced to the second round before losing to Texas A&M.
“When you come in as a freshman, you have these expectations. To go to the tournament — I thought that’s what you’re supposed to do [every year],” Buford said.
The team has not gone back to the NCAA tournament since then.
“I guess the next year after that you realize what it’s worth … I’ve been trying to get back since my freshman year so I think it can be frustrating,” Buford said.
The team went 20-12 her freshman season but finished under .500 the next two years.
Beginning her sophomore year, she started every game, and the team relied on her to carry a bulk of the scoring.
She jumped from 6.9 points per game to 13.1 points per game from her freshman to her sophomore season.
The St. Paul native was the team’s top scorer during her sophomore and junior year.
Buford said she got used to having pressure placed upon her.
“That’s what your best players are supposed to do — or at least try. I think [Buford] tried to do that a lot last year. I think she got a lot more help this year,” Borton said.
Having freshman Rachel Banham around and scoring has alleviated pressure, Buford said.
Banham leads the team with 15.9 points per game to Buford’s 13.7.
Buford’s leadership has manifested itself in different ways and has been important for Banham’s development, Borton said.
“She led by example on the floor, and she’s been somebody, for the most part, that I’ve been able to go to and bounce things off of,” Borton said.
Borton said she turns to Buford for her opinions and advice on things she would otherwise only bounce off other coaches.
“I think you can always trust that she’s going to give you her opinion whether you want to hear it or not. That’s one thing that I respect [about her],” she said.
On the court, aside from mentoring Banham, Borton said Buford sets a positive example for her teammates with her work ethic.
“When I was recruiting [Buford], a lot of people said that she didn’t work hard, that we were getting a kid that didn’t work hard,” Borton said. “[Buford] has been one of the hardest workers for four years … I think she’s really taught the rest of the team how to work hard.”
Buford graduated with a degree in communications studies and is attending graduate school for sports management.
She’s in the process of figuring out what comes after life as a member of the women’s basketball team.
She said she would like to go into public relations in the future or maybe even be a high school coach.
Before that, she’ll attend the NCAA Women’s Final Four Combine on March 30-31 and looking to potentially extend her playing career overseas.
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
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