Kitija Laksa does not come from a traditional basketball country.
Yet, basketball has been around the Riga, Latvia, native her whole life.
“My dad played professionally, now he’s a youth coach,” Laksa said. “My mom used to play as well. She’s a youth coach … my brother plays professionally as well now, in Spain. There was no pressure for me to play basketball. But it was just there — available and around.”
While Latvia may not be considered a basketball powerhouse by most Americans, Laksa said it’s gradually getting there.
“It’s growing,” Laksa said. “I come from a small country — we have less than two-million inhabitants — and the territory is smaller than Florida. All of that together, for people in the United States, it’s just hard to imagine, ‘How’s it even possible?’ Some big [American] cities have two million inhabitants.
“For us, we are not as many. But even in the sports and the things we do, we’re pretty good at [them]. We have top athletes in every single sport.”
For her part, Laksa has become one of the top athletes in USF’s program history. She is sixth all-time in scoring with 1,715 points, second in all-time field goal percentage and first all-time in free throw percentage. Laksa needs 687 points to tie Jessica Dickson for the most all-time points in program history.
Despite the obvious implications of setting such a record, Laksa has her eyes on the bigger picture.
“It would mean a lot, but that’s definitely not something I’m focusing on,” Laksa said. “I’m not focusing on me right now. I have done me — I have made shots, I have broken some kind of records personally…I want to win games. I want to kind of take the next step toward going deeper in the NCAA tournament.”
While Laksa represents her country every day at USF as one of the most prominent Latvian students on campus, she’s also had numerous chances to represent her country on Latvia’s national teams. Prior to coming to USF, Laksa already had experience playing for Latvia’s senior national team in addition to playing on Latvia’s U16, U18 and U20 national teams.
Most recently, Laksa participated in the FIBA World Cup in September. Latvia’s appearance in the tournament was its first in what is considered the premiere international basketball tournament.
“It means a lot to me, definitely,” Laksa said. “The pride is the first thing. And just being grateful for the opportunities that I’ve gotten. I’ve played in a couple of European championships and this one was my first World Cup. For me, my country — men’s or women’s basketball. So it does mean a lot to represent my country, put that uniform on and sing the national anthem before every game. It means a lot.”
Latvia lost all three games in its inaugural World Cup appearance, though two of them were decided in the dying seconds of the game. Laksa put up 31 points over 77 minutes during the three games, third-best on the team in both categories.
“It was an amazing experience that I would not change for anything,” Laksa said. “Of course, we did not end up playing as well as we wanted to. Losing the first two games in the last couple of seconds — that hurts. That hurts a lot. And the last game against USA was just there to enjoy because we were pretty much done after the first two losses.”
Laksa’s experiences are definitely appreciated by her teammates.
“It’s awesome,” said redshirt senior Laura Ferreira, who has international experience playing for Portugal’s national team. “Playing with a top player every day, working hard with her, learning stuff from her, it’s awesome. I like it.”
When Laksa first joined the Bulls for the 2015-16 season, she was the youngest player on the team at age 19. Now a senior, Laksa is still not the oldest member of the team — that honor goes to the redshirted Ferreira — but she is the clear face of the team. Her face appears on all of USF’s marketing posts and on almost every page of this year’s media guide. It’s been a wild ride to the top for Laksa.
“I’ve learned so much. I’ve grown so much. I’m not even talking about school and basketball. It’s just, as a person, I’ve developed,” Laksa said. “Definitely all this experience I’ve had here at USF, I wouldn’t change it. I would not go to a different school … [USF] has made me realize how things work and how to become a better person, a better basketball player and it has been just about growth here.”