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Graney: Lady Rebels point guard thrives while filling big shoes

LOS ANGELES — Kiara Jackson had some pretty big hightops to fill. Some pretty big expectations to meet. Some pretty big goals to chase.

She is the point guard for UNLV women’s basketball, the junior who makes things go for a side that is 30-2.

The Lady Rebels open NCAA Tournament play as a No. 10 seed against No. 7 Creighton on Saturday at UCLA.

Jackson assumed the leading role from Essence Booker, one of the finest players to exist under fourth-year coach Lindy La Rocque.

Booker was a two-time all-conference player and three times earned all-state honors while at Spring Valley High. She was all that and more.

“I don’t think it has been very tough,” Jackson said. “My teammates made (the transition) easy for me — it was super important they had confidence in me. I’ve just tried to do what I do and play my game. Make sure I lead.”

More finesse

Jackson and Booker are different players. The latter is a ball-dominant guard. More ground-and-pound. A more powerful force.

Jackson has more finesse to her game, more twists and angles to it. A little more pace. They make the same plays, just in difference ways.

But nobody doubted Jackson’s ability. The Grand Prairie, Texas, native has been a point guard her whole life. All through AAU ball. All through high school. Knows the position inside and out.

She’s a natural leader minus a bellowing tone, always in command while creating for others. She’s also a three-level scorer, averaging 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds 4.7 assists. Leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.21. Just doesn’t make many bad decisions.

“I don’t know if she felt any pressure stepping into the role, but she knows how important it is for our team and me in how we play and how I coach,” La Rocque said. “She had to get comfortable in her own skin and not try and be anyone else. Not try to be Essence. Just do things her way and know it was going to be good enough.”

There were signs last season of things to come. Jackson was named the Mountain West’s Sixth Player of the Year after averaging 7.9 points and 2.2 assists. Signs that she would be ready to embrace a lead part when called upon.

But it can take time. Booker was such an essential part of all the Lady Rebels did. A tough act to follow.

Jackson’s teammates knew of her talent, but so much more is expected of a starting point guard. Hers is a temperament that plays well to the position. Never too high. Never too low.

Hers was also a different voice leading the Lady Rebels. A different face. Just have a louder voice, is all.

La Rocque and Jackson both speak about the player’s need to be more of a leader through words, to not be shy when instructing teammates, to let her feelings be known.

Most important game

“She has always been a dominant player,” senior Desi-Rae Young said. “She’s just here to work. She’s different than Essence, who is more of a hooper. Kiara makes the extra pass and has been more vocal this year. She has a great (basketball) IQ. I’ve seen her grow in a lot of ways. She understands when the time comes she has to speak up. She understands how we all operate with each other.”

And now, Jackson will play her most important game as a point guard. The Lady Rebels are looking to advance past the opening round for the first time in three years.

They know who to follow.

“I think (Jackson) really found her footing at the end of November and into December,” La Rocque said. “If anything, it empowered her teammates to say, ‘We got you. This is your team, and you need to tell us what to do.’ She just continued to step into that role.”

All the while filling some pretty big hightops.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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