Jan. 11, 2011
By Larry Watts
To say Williams Arena has been a second home for Kiara Buford would be a bit of an understatement.
The St. Paul, Minn. native may have been more familiar with the University of Minnesota basketball court than any other recruit when she first donned the Golden Gophers jersey back in 2008. By that time, she had already spent three years as a ball girl for Gophers' home games and she had played on the court three times in the state tournament for nearby St. Paul Central High School.
"From third through fifth grade, the coach on my traveling team would have us come over here to be ball girls," the 5-foot-11 Buford says. "I remember being so nervous to go on the court because there were so many people here.
"They had some very good teams, with players like Lindsey Whalen and Janel McCarville, at the time. I would get nervous when I had to go out and wipe the sweat off the floor. Never did I imagine I would be playing here someday."
A three-time all-state selection and a 2008 Minnesota Ms. Basketball finalist, Buford poured in 1,810 career points while leading St. Paul Central to back-to-back state titles. But it was too late by the time many of the big-time programs started showing heavy interest.
"I committed to Minnesota while attending a basketball camp there during the summer after my sophomore year," the Gopher guard says. "(Head coach) Pam Borton had already struck up a close friendship with me and I had been hearing from her a lot and she had been out to many of my games.
"When I was younger, I always thought I would be one of those girls who would go far away from home to play. But the older I got, the more I wanted to stay closer to home.
"The Big Ten is a great conference and I thought I could be successful playing in it, so if I was going to play in the Big Ten I might as well stay home." She added. "I never took any other official visits because I felt so comfortable here and I would be able to play in front of my family and friends who had been watching me all my life. Maybe I should have taken some of those (recruiting) trips, but I just knew what I wanted to do early and I wanted to be honest with everyone and not lead them on."
One of those family members she wanted to make sure saw her play on a regular basis is her mother, Tracy. A basketball player at Highland High School in St. Paul and for one year at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, Tracy had been her daughter's coach through most of her playing career.
"She was always there, either as the head coach or assistant coach, from the moment I started playing in rec leagues in the second grade," Buford says. "I was playing AAU ball from the fourth grade through my senior year of high school and played on a traveling team from fifth through eighth grade.
"For awhile, I think I was playing around 100 games a year. It seemed like it was non-stop basketball, but I didn't regret it at all. It taught me to become the player I am today."
Yet, despite having been on the floor of Williams Arena many times in the past, Buford admits her first appearance in a Minnesota uniform was a real test of her nerves.
"Even though it was home for me, I was really nervous," she says. "This was a totally different game. The intensity and tempo was so much greater and you actually have to play defense at this level. I was a tall guard in high school and now the guards are just as tall as I am. It was a real adjustment."
There was also another big adjustment Buford had to make. Used to being a starter throughout nearly all of her career, she now had to get used to the idea of being one of the first players off the bench.
"That was hard, almost harder than starting," she says. "When you come into the game after 10 minutes, everyone is already into the flow of the game, so you have to have a different focus. At Minnesota, that focus is defense and I had to let everything else come to me.
"Coach Borton always told me if I wanted to play, I had to play defense. She's a defensive-minded coach and that actually helped me take my mind off having to come in and make a lot of shots as a freshman."
Buford played in all 32 games in her rookie year and wound up making the Big Ten All-Freshman team. She was the Gophers' top scorer off the bench, averaging 6.9 points per game.
Buford prepared herself for a starting role last year, but what she wasn't prepared for was to take over the job as the team's leading scorer. An honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, she wound up leading the Gophers with a 13.1 scoring average, but her team struggled to a 6-12 record in the Big Ten (13-17 overall).
"I went from coming off the bench to being the go-to player, which really required a different mind-set," she says. "A lot of teams didn't know much about me as a freshman. They had been leaving me open and concentrated on shutting down Emily Fox. Now I was the focal point of the team and I had to learn how create and get open."
By the end of the season, Buford says she was feeling more comfortable with her role.
"I learned so much and I think I have grown tremendously," she says. "Since last year, I have been focusing on my leadership and I think I am ready to be in control while leading my team."
Point guard China Antoine and forward Kristen Dockery are the lone seniors on this year's squad, but since Antoine is a transfer student and Dockery has been plagued by injuries that leaves Buford and fellow junior Jackie Voigt as the team leaders in Division I minutes. Buford will also have to take over the point duties when Antoine heads to the bench.
"I've enjoyed helping out the younger players and developing our team this year," she says. "Our expectations are still the same, go to the NCAA Tournament and finish at the top of the conference. I see a lot of potential and I think we can surprise some teams this year."
Buford recently settled on a major in communications with a minor in mass communications. She can easily see herself working in broadcasting or public relations.
"Playing basketball for so long, I've had to deal with the media a lot and find it very interesting," she says. "People, especially my teammates, say I like to talk too much. I know I would love watching games and talking basketball."
But there's also another avenue she hasn't gone down since her senior year of high school. Although the demand for basketball forced her to give it up after two years, she hasn't completely shut the door on a modeling career.
"I was actually out here watching the Gophers play one day and a modeling agent came up and tapped me on the shoulder," Buford says. "She had me come down to her office and I tried it for two years. Being an athlete and being a model require completely different personalities. Modeling is a lot of hard work and you have to be more of a girlie girl, but if you can take pictures and make money, why not?"
When she finally graduates in 2012, that doesn't necessarily mean the end of the Buford line at Minnesota. Her sister Jada is currently serving in her third season as a Gophers' ball girl.
"My mother is coaching her team now," Kiara says. "She's a pretty good player. She can't beat me yet, but she's probably better than I was at her age."