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Kiera Pemberton's jump from 'just happy to be here' to playing big role for UND women's basketball

Mar. 8—GRAND FORKS — Kiera Pemberton didn't have high expectations entering her first year with UND women's basketball.

"I honestly didn't know what I was getting into," she said. "I was literally just happy to be here. Here for the ride. Whatever happens, happens."

Pemberton's role in the Fighting Hawks' first game at Wyoming mirrored a typical freshman — she came off the bench and hit two free throws in three minutes.

Then, in UND's first home game against Grand Canyon, she came off the bench and scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in 17 minutes.

That was an early sign of things to come for Pemberton, who was

named to the Summit League All-Freshman team

Thursday.

She has shot 54.4% from the field this season, the highest mark of UND players with at least 100 field goal attempts.

She averaged 10.5 points per game this season, third-best behind Kacie Borowicz and Kiyah Hurst. And she averaged a team-best 6.8 rebounds per game.

"There's not a second she takes off," UND coach Mallory Bernhard said. "She plays as hard as anybody in this league. How do you not love coaching someone that does that? And it's not just on game day. She brings it every single day, every second, every rep in practice. She's also incredibly coachable. She's absorbing a lot more than I think she even knew there was to absorb."

Pemberton has started 17 games this season, including the last eight straight. She'll look for her ninth start Sunday when sixth-seeded UND plays No. 3 Oral Roberts in the Summit League tournament quarterfinals at 3 p.m. at the Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls, S.D.

UND's last game against Oral Roberts Feb. 17 was a 102-57 loss, but Pemberton ended with a double-double that day, scoring 10 points on 50% shooting and grabbing 11 rebounds.

She nearly recorded a double-double the next weekend with 10 points and seven rebounds in a 107-80 loss to North Dakota State in Fargo.

"I think, as the season has went on, she has understood that she's probably one of the best rebounders in the league, I'm going to say," Borowicz said after the NDSU loss. "She's just so aggressive, and she's really smart when she gets around the rim. She's a great finisher, and I think she's realized when it's her turn to shoot and when it's her turn to just get in there and get rebounds, be really aggressive for us. I've seen a lot of growth from her."

Pemberton has turned to veteran players like Borowicz this season as she navigated the jump to college basketball.

She's constantly asking questions, looking for tips and feedback on plays as she improves her game.

"It's been so different," Pemberton said. "The level of IQ I had going into this versus the amount I've gained this year. It's just a whole lot of learning."

Bernhard, for one, thinks Pemberton hasn't come close to her ceiling in her first year.

"I still think we're just scratching the surface with what she's capable of," Bernhard said. "Her ability is off the charts. As she gets more and more experience in this league, and just knowledge of our system, she's going to do things that I don't think anyone expects."