Growing up in a home surrounded by the game, sophomore forward Kitija Laksa can’t remember a time without basketball.
Laksa’s father, Janis, played on the Latvian national team while her brother, Martins, currently plays professionally for the Valmiera club team in their home of Latvia.
“Basketball has always been in our family,” Laksa said.
“I believe that I just saw a ball back in the yard (one day) and just started shooting.”
That natural instinct has led to the beginning of a bright career for Laksa as a Bull.
With only ten practices under her belt at USF coming into last season, Laksa and the rest of the USF women’s basketball team traveled to Spain last August for a preseason exhibition series with professional teams from across the country.
It was on this trip that Laksa said she first garnered the confidence of USF coach Jose Fernandez.
“It was awesome to play for the first time (for USF), and that’s when coach started trusting me,” Laksa said.
“That’s how I slowly earned his trust…because every day I came here, I had something to prove. I wanted to play, but I didn’t know what to expect… if I would be on the bench or I would play, I just had to earn my playing time.”
She averaged 21 points in 25 minutes in the two games she appeared in overseas, shooting 7-of-10 from 3-point range. Laksa used that momentum to earn a start on opening night back in her new American home.
Playing in all but five minutes and scoring 15 points in a 22-point win over Jacksonville in her state-side Bulls’ debut, the young Latvian’s role and confidence grew rapidly on a team already laden in talent with guard Courtney Williams and forward Alicia Jenkins, USF’s all team leaders in points and rebounds, respectively.
“We had a couple of great leaders,” Laksa said.
“The team was awesome last year. The expectations coach had for me was…some stuff was overwhelming, some stuff was new, some stuff was just unexplored. But, I got here…and I just knew that I fit in. Everyone around me told me I fit in and I really believed that I have to be here and that I could do well.”
Sharing the floor with two of the most impactful players in the history of the program, Laksa flew under the radar at times early on last season.
However, she quietly established herself as a viable scoring threat for Fernandez and the Bulls, averaging just over nine points per game at the end of 2015.
That’s when Fernandez let Laksa loose.
In the 15 games she played after the turn of the calendar, Laksa averaged 16.7 points, shooting over 44 percent on shots beyond the arc before injuring her ankle in the waning minutes of a Feb. 21 home win over Memphis.
Laksa missed the remainder of the regular season, along with the first two games of the AAC Tournament.
She managed to return to limited action following the injury for the AAC Championship game, a loss to eventual national champion UConn, and two NCAA tournament games for the Bulls.
However, the sharp-shooting wing failed to return to her early season form, scoring a total of only 16 points over those final three games.
Despite the injury, Laksa’s stellar shooting through the heart of USF’s schedule was enough for the Latvian to finish 16th in the country in 3-point percentage for the season (42 percent) and be named the 2016 AAC Freshman of the Year.
While she may be vocal away from the court in communicating with her new foreign teammates, Fernandez said that Laksa’s leadership needs no words.
“I think she’s more of a silent leader,” Fernandez said.
“So, when she does say something, it’s impactful and it’s meaningful. I think she lets her play talk for itself. I think there are different types of leaders; she’s just not the ‘ra-ra’ type of person. When she has to say something, she says it, and I think everybody listens.”