Last year, UNLV Lady Rebels freshman guard Kiara Jackson was involved in a principle play during a heated conference matchup. Interestingly enough, it may go on to serve as a villain origin story of sorts.
During her freshman year, Jackson played in 32 of the team’s 33 games and recorded 6.4 points per game to go along with two rebounds and two assists a game. More often than not, it was Jackson who led UNLV’s second-unit.
“They trusted me late in the shot clock with the ball in my hands,” she said. “I think that just shows how much confidence [head coach Lindy La Rcoque] had in me – especially as a freshman.”
In her second collegiate game, Jackson logged 23 minutes in a Lady Rebels’ win on her way to playing 20 or more minutes in 22 of her 32 games played.
A week later, she reached double-figure scoring for the first time while tallying seven assists and four steals in her fourth game with UNLV.
Jackson scored a career-high 17 points with three made three-pointers against Cal State Bakersfield. In her first seven games played, she compiled six total deep balls.
While the non-conference slate was pleasant for Jackson, conference play provided a new array of issues for the freshman.
“I feel like winning was easier in the [non-conference] I guess,” she said. “When you get to conference, everyone is gunning for each other’s throats. It doesn’t matter, you could be the worst team in the league but still beat the No.1 team. Anyone can win on any given day.”
Being a senior leader on the team, guard Essence Booker gave her perspective as she watched Jackson adjust to conference play for the first time.
“I just didn’t want her to make the same mistakes I did as a freshman,” Booker said. “I honestly just tried to boost her confidence up the entire season her freshman year and even more so this year.
“I feel like her class, her sophomore class, I preach to them about it a lot – they are probably the best class I’ve ever been a part of.”
On Jan. 29th of last year, Jackson was dribbling out a win for the Lady Rebels against conference foe Air Force. Despite the game being well out of reach, Falcons’ head coach Chris Gobrecht still had her team in a press defense.
From there, La Rocque instructed a then-18-year-old Jackson to run the offense which resulted in two points, much to the dismay of Gobrecht.
Following the victory, both La Rocque and Gobrecht briefly exchanged words at halfcourt.
“Late in the game when we’re playing our subs and they have their starters in, we’re going to look to stay aggressive because I’m not going to put my team in a situation to look bad,” La Rocque after the win against Air Force last year. “As a coach, it’s on me to put them into successful situations and so [Jackson] was getting pressured – she already had a couple of turnovers, I don’t want her to turn it over. So the best way to do that is to run a play and look to score.” Nearly a year later, Jackson gave her thoughts on the matter.
“[The defender] was pressuring me and I was like, ‘Why are you pressuring me, the game is over?’” she recalled. “Coach Lindy called a play and was like, ‘Go run it.’ I said, ‘Okay,’ and then scored. I think [Gobrecht] was mad but I was like, ‘Well, get off me.’”
After the win, Jackson stayed after to shoot in the Cox Pavilion. With only a basketball bouncing off the hardwood and the crisp finish of nylon after a make, it was just her and one member of the Lady Rebels’ staff to rebound her attempts.
The postgame shootaround was out of the normal routine for the freshman.
To her own admittance, the moment where she knew she belonged at this level came about a month later. Who’d know it would come on the road at Moby Arena to help UNLV pick up a pretty notable win.
Jackson scored 17 of her team-high 20 points in the second half to help the Lady Rebels erase a 10-point deficit to beat the Colorado State Rams.
Before that, UNLV had lost nine straight meetings at Moby Arena dating back to 2008. In 2008, Jackson was merely five years old.
“That is crazy,” she said. “That’s like so long ago. I did not know that, that’s crazy.”
The Lady Rebels would go onto win the Mountain West’s regular season title before polishing off the feat with the conference’s tournament title as well. All firsts for the freshman Jackson.
“Just being around all the older players just showed us [younger players] how to handle situations,” Jackson said. “Getting that experience at a young age will make it easier when I’m a senior and I’m in that role.”
UNLV’s valiant run would fall short in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament as the team fell to Arizona, 72-67.
Jackson credited a lot of first-year success to intense practices with Booker, someone she considers a mentor.
“We’re always going against each other,” Jackson said. “We’re always guarding each other. I like that I have someone older than me with experience who can teach me, which she does. She’ll talk to me and try to give me advice. I think that just made me better in the long run.”
As much as Jackson relishes the opportunity to go against Booker in practice, the senior enjoys it just as much.
“One of my biggest goals was to leave my mark – especially with the younger players,” Booker said. “I want to leave and I don’t want anything to change. I just try to rub my leadership off on her and take her under my wing.”
Last summer, the pair worked out during the off-season ahead of one final college campaign together.
Jackson would use everything she learned in her first year to catapult her into her sophomore season. A season where she has upped her scoring to 8.1 points per game while still hauling in about two rebounds a game while pushing her assists average to nearly two and a half per outing.
For the first time in her collegiate career, Jackson started for La Rocque’s UNLV group November 27th of last year for an injured Alyssa Durazo-Frecas, playing 38 minutes in the process.
“I was nervous but I wasn’t that nervous,” Jackson said. “I was just like, ‘Go out there and do what you always do, it’s no different.’ I remember I had to guard the best shooter out there and I don’t think she scored so…”
By late December, Jackson had injected herself back into the starting lineup again. This time it was under much different circumstances.
Ahead of a conference game against Wyoming, Jackson was made aware that she’d be starting in place of a healthy Booker.
“I don’t know if it was awkward for E,” Jackson said. “But it was a little awkward for me because it was right before practice and I didn’t know if I wanted to say something to her because I didn’t want her to be mad at me for taking her spot.”
Sitting on the opposite end, Booker had a wide-range of emotions herself.
“With this being my last year of eligibility, I was frustrated,” she said. “I think it was okay for me to feel that type of emotion and be frustrated but I was definitely not frustrated at Kiara – Kiara deserved it.
“I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do, especially as a leader. It was just a big eye-opener for me.”
In response to the move, Jackson poured in 20 points which accounted for a share of the game-high.
Jackson showed promise in the starting lineup but about two weeks later, her and Booker once again, swapped roles.
“Her role is extremely important – I can’t stress that enough,” Booker said. “[With her] being the other point guard on this team – I never want to say “backup point guard” because honestly we’re in the game together the entire time.
“To be honest, frankly, we wouldn’t be where we [are] without her.”
Even with the move, Jackson understands her role is still vital to the team and she’s more than willing to accept the challenge.
“I know that they need me,” she said. “Coach Lindy will get on me if I have a bad day and [remind] me, ‘We need you.’”