Matt Tait: Part personality, part dominant player, KU center Taiyanna Jackson is a star in the making
There are a dozen different reasons to pay attention to this Kansas women’s basketball team beyond its WNIT championship, which they won with a hard-fought 66-59 triumph over Columbia on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse.
And make no mistake about it, with nearly everyone back and reinforcements coming, this will be an NCAA Tournament team next season and a factor in the Big 12 Conference race.
But if you want a reason to follow the WNIT champs that comes with a little bit of Hollywood flare, Mike-Tyson fight and heartfelt emotion, you’d do well to pay close attention to KU center Taiyanna Jackson from here on out.
Already known for her dominance on the court, the 6-foot-6 center who has one season of eligibility remaining spent so much of the recently completed season letting the world see her true personality.
And, boy, is there a lot there.
Her teammates have known that for a while now. But after breaking onto the Kansas basketball scene with a solid season a year ago — averaging around nine points and eight rebounds per game — Jackson appeared to feel even more comfortable in her surroundings for her second season as a Jayhawk, and that allowed her to let the light shine down just a little brighter.
She was goofy and chatty in postgame meetings with the media. She said what was on her mind at all times, even if she didn’t really know what or why she was saying it. And she was openly affectionate to everyone from her teammates to her head coach.
Her production was bigger, too. She earned all-Big 12 first team honors, was named the MVP of the WNIT and became the first KU player to average a double-double for a season since 1982. It was only fitting that she capped that with a monster effort of 17 points and 21 rebounds on Saturday.
While those numbers garner her a certain amount of attention, it’s the rest of her that makes her a star.
Jackson is made for the spotlight. She’s got talent, natural charisma and genuine charm. And she’s not afraid to embrace all of it, using those traits to fuel her performance and her ability to have fun playing the game she loves.
She said after Saturday’s WNIT title victory that her goal, in all situations good and bad, is to always be happy.
“It’s just not for show, that’s me, like, 24/7,” she said.
Her coach, eighth-year head Jayhawk Brandon Schneider, got emotional when hearing those words and when being asked to talk about the player they call “Twin.”
“Some of us grow up in pretty privileged circumstances and some of us don’t,” Schneider said, with his voice breaking while he vaguely referenced his center’s East Chicago, Indiana, upbringing. “And, for her, it’s about trust. She trusts us. But a kid like that is going to make you earn it.”
Countless hours on the practice court and in the locker room and two seasons worth of roadtrips made that easier for Jackson’s teammates and coaches to do.
On Saturday, the Kansas crowd got the chance to do it, and they certainly took advantage.
Already comfortable roaring after her big time buckets in the paint or the school-record 109 blocks she recorded this year, the KU crowd of 11,701 got a chance to cheer for Jackson the person on Saturday, and they took full advantage.
Locked in a dogfight and with the game still up in the air, Jackson left the court and went back to the locker room after coming down awkwardly on her ankle midway through the third quarter.
Tears on her face and concern throughout the arena turned Allen Fieldhouse quiet. And although the Jayhawks were able to hang in there and maintain their lead without her, things really started to go well again after she returned.
The biggest ovation of the day came in three parts.
First, when Jackson returned to the floor from the locker room. After grabbing a seat on the bench after sprinting from the locker room, the crowd roared and Jackson shrugged her shoulders and sheepishly smiled.
The second part came, when Jackson checked back into the game to a standing ovation.
And, finally, after she got the ball on the block on the first possession after her return and easily scored at the rim on the left side to push the Jayhawks’ lead to seven points, the large Kansas crowd led out its loudest cheer of the game.
Not only were they happy for the control that Jackson’s bucket reestablished, but they also were clearly happy for her.
“It’s just amazing seeing how much they care about me,” Jackson said after the victory. “It was so fun. It’s just so fun. I’m just excited we were able to come out here and do what we wanted to do and just have fun. I’m just so happy for us. We worked hard for this.”
With one year remaining and goals worthy of the Kansas basketball standard, Jackson stands poised to be an even bigger star next season.
Schneider said he expects Jackson, along with senior guards Zakiyah Franklin and Holly Kersgieter, to return for the 2023-24 season, and it was clear from the light in his eyes when he said that that he’s looking forward to another run with this team and another season of the Twin Show.
“She’s an unbelievable young woman,” Schneider said. “Some environments you kind of always have your head on a swivel, and that’s probably how you should behave. But she became somebody that loves this place and trusts the people around her — trusts her teammates — and has been able to just express herself and allow people to get to know her.”
The guess here is we haven’t seen anything yet.