Pittsburgh, PA— Kadri-Ann Lass recalls looking at a box score her freshman season at Duquesne and seeing eight blocks next to her name, a total that surprised her since she had adjusted to playing forward position in a faster-paced American system, where her defense and physicality on post players took time to adjust to.
Now, Lass sits in Duquesne’s record books with 179 career blocks, in this her junior season, with at least another month of basketball promised.
The milestone certainly has not sunk in, as students, professors and others on campus have congratulated her. There has been a consistent pause before she smiles and offers both her thanks and a thumbs up to each well wisher.
“If I am being honest, I never really realized that I was a good shot blocker,” she said. “My freshman year, I realized I could block and I kept doing it last year. I’m not crazy athletic or insanely tall. For me it’s all timing, patience and that’s how I have worked my way up here. I remember after last season Coach Burt came up to me and said that I only needed 65 to break the record and told me to try and get it this season. I told him I would try and it happened to go better than we expected.”
From Estonia to Pittsburgh
It was a track inside of an Estonian forest when Viive Rebane knew Kadri-Ann Lass was going to be good.
Rebane, who transitioned from Estonia to Binghamton University was back in her native country for a summer camp and coached several 14-15 year old women’s basketball players including Lass.
When it came time to run 10 kilometers on the track, each of the girls took shortcuts and cheated, everyone that is except for Lass.
“That’s when I knew she was going to be something good,” Rebane said. “She was talented but she is willing to work for it. Then she watched everyone else do the suicides but that’s when I knew she was special and she was different.”
Her journey into basketball began with her mother Kai who found plenty of success playing in Estonia. Although Lass does not recall her first time holding a basketball, it is this aforementioned reason why she believes she was born with a basketball in her hand.
During halftime of her mother’s games, Lass would shoot with Kai’s teammates and before long there would be two-on-one battles.
Lass made her first three and immediately reacted to the make, though no one else on the floor believed her.
“I’ve added details to it in my mind, I just remember it being super magical,” she said. “I was on the left wing and took all the power that I had, put it up there and it was nothing but net, it went in. I was standing there alone and was wondering if anyone saw it. No one saw it, so I was upset, but I remember it.”
All of these years later, Lass maintains that the shot was a three.
Throughout her Estonian career, Lass was a guard, though she began to shift away from the position in ninth grade as she began to grow.
For those unfamiliar with the Estonian playing style, it is more deliberate with teams walking the ball up, setting plays and finding the open person. That being said, the basketball community is embracing more of a quicker pace and some of Estonia has followed suit.
Lass was a member of the 2014 FIBA U18 European Women’s Championship and was named to the first team with 12.0 points and 12.9 rebounds per game.
When it came time for the recruiting process, Lass was initially unsure if she wanted to play overseas. She was advised by Rebane and ultimately the two agreed that if Lass’s mind changed that a phone call could get the process going once again.
“I guess I just didn’t know what to expect,” Lass said. “My plan wasn’t coming here and playing up until maybe late sophomore year in high school. Europe was a safe choice, familiar, but the more I learned about the US collegiate sports system, the more interested I was.”
A year later, Rebane received a call from Lass. She had indeed changed her mind.
For Rebane, the call was refreshing and her smile, years later was just as wide as when she took Lass’s call.
“I didn’t want her to stay in Estonia after graduating, that would not have been good for her development,” she said. “She changed her mind, thank god.”
Rebane had experienced what Lass was looking for, a successful overseas transition with an NCAA Division I program and it was determined that the latter would make a tape of highlights for American collegiate coaches.
“I gave it to her, she distributed it to her coaches in the states and I guess it got out there,” said Lass. “I had a few very good games just around the time so it was easy to make it. I had tips of how to put it together. Everything came to me and I decided to give it a little more of a push.”
In total Lass had 25-30 offers, one of those being Duquesne. It was coach Dan Burt made Duquesne’s initial contact with Lass having seen the video.
“I already had D-I offers so I just thought it was another offer but I looked a bit into it and saw they were ranked pretty high and thought I would keep this as one of my options, that was at the point where if it was below the 250-rank mark I was going to consider higher options,” recalled Lass. “I didn’t even know that he got my video tape from someone. I also had a few phone calls with Coach Rachel (Wojdowski). Coach Burt came to the European Championships and there were a lot of American coaches there. That’s kind of where I feel he started recruiting me more heavily. I only got two visits to Estonia and it was after I already visited here and was sure I was coming here. It was Texas Tech and South Florida.”
Lass also received offers from Georgia Tech and North Carolina but ultimately choose Duquesne over South Florida.
Upon coming to Duquesne it took a full month for Lass to feel comfortable understanding English, especially play calls from coaches, a problem which also affected Serbian junior Julijana Vojinovic and Hungarian redshirt sophomore Eniko Kuttor.
After overcoming that challenge, Burt offered another one the day prior to Duquesne’s 2015-16 season opener against Saint Peter’s.
“Coach Burt said ‘Kadri, you might want to make up a handshake because you might be starting tomorrow,” Lass said.
Lass started all 34 games in her freshman season, one in which Duquesne made its first ever NCAA Tournament.
In her first ever home game, Nov. 24 against Howard, scored a career-high 25 points on her 19th birthday.
“This is one of the best freshman performances that I know of in Duquesne women’s basketball history,” Burt said at the time. “We’d probably have to go back to Korie Hlede to find anything like that.”
Lass was named to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie and All-Championship teams, though she missed out on being named Rookie of the Year despite receiving Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Week a program-record seven times, something Burt pointed out to anyone that would listen following the team’s Atlantic 10 Championship quarterfinal victory over Fordham.
“I think it was my teammates and coaches,” said Lass. “They trusted me and that gave me confidence. I also got to play with some of the best players here. It was so easy to play with them and I just had to play my role. If I worked hard on defense, screened and rolled they would find me. I didn’t have to do much to score.”
A challenging sophomore season and regaining momentum
With Duquesne losing three seniors to graduation including its top two scorers and best defender, Lass was expected to be a leader but ultimately she had a start to the season which was below her expectations and became a factor as the calendar switched to conference play.
Lass, had passed each and every test to date, but this was more of a mental barrier which for much of the season got the best of her.
During the season, neither Burt, nor Lass had answers, but now with time, Lass was able to analyze what she was going through in that time frame.
“I think the biggest factor was that I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she said. “I said to myself ‘you had a good year last year, now people are going to look to you. You have to be more of a leader.’ I needed time to get into being a vocal leader and I thought I had to do it fast. I tried pushing myself into it and it didn’t go as well and I dug a huge hole for myself.”
The first turning point came at just about the halfway point of that season when she told herself to let everything go and after accomplishing so much in her playing career, that it was time to start over.
It was time to hit the reset button.
“It was hard, there were a lot of nights I was very down on myself,” said Lass. “I am very hard on myself as most of us are. I had to learn the hard way that it really can get me almost destroyed. It was hard to admit I dug myself a hole and now you have to take a deep breath and let it go. It was very tough, but it needed to be done because I was not in a great place.”
Part of this restart involved several discussions with her mother and then one with Burt in which she made the decision to come off the bench for the rest of the season.
“I couldn’t force it anymore,” Lass said. “I needed to do it for the team which made it easier for me.”
Back in Estonia, Rebane knew such a challenge could occur, but was proud that Lass faced it head on and refused to give up.
“Kadri had a lot of growing up to do, it’s not easy,” she said “You graduate high school and go 4,323 miles away. We expected that at one point she would have to struggle a little bit and grow. She had her own demons that she had to fight. Last year maybe wasn’t her best year but I am sure she did a lot of growing that year.”
In the team’s Atlantic 10 semifinal win against Saint Joseph’s, Lass scored 11 points and added 7 rebounds, the smile never leaving her face at the Richmond Coliseum that afternoon. Less than 24 hours later against Dayton, Lass scored 19 points and added six rebounds, her best game in over three months.
Though Duquesne lost the conference championship and it was a quiet six-hour bus ride back, Lass used the time to reflect on her season.
There certainly were peaks and valleys, but she had her confidence back which made things easier heading into the offseason.
“It showed me what I had been doing was working and not all hope was gone,” said Lass. “Before, there was the thought of if I had forgotten how to play and what was going on. It was good to see that whatever I was doing had been working and my teammates still trusted me. I left Richmond with a little bit of a good feeling in my stomach that I was able to pull myself together and that was when I finally felt I was coming back.”
Lass stayed in Pittsburgh working on post moves with her coaches and on building her game for all of May and part of June before traveling back home to Estonia with her teammate and friend Paige Cannon.
The trip allowed her to let everything from last season go and enjoy home life, while also playing tour guide. She was able to practice in her high school gym and a month later, Lass was back in Pittsburgh refreshed.
During the offseason, Lass was back to separating herself from the pack in the post and no longer does she dwell on misses, but rather gets back on defense determined to help her team.
“After a month I was eager to come back here,” Lass said. “When I came back I kind of let the past go. I still had it in my mind before the first few games because these are the actual games. Once we started doing well, we all had turned the next page and I was happy.”
Rebane understands how difficult Lass’s challenges were to overcome, but is proud that Lass has moved on from them.
She is hopeful to make the trip back into the states to watch Lass play and the two remain in touch.
“I’m just so proud of her, because you never know how it’s going to go,” said Rebane. “There are a lot of girls that go to the states and come back after the first year because it’s too hard. She wasn’t willing to give up. She has worked hard since day one and it’s gotten her to where she is now.”
Having a block party
It is hard for Lass to fathom that she owns a block record, with 12 more swats in the next 10 or more games earning the single-season record from Jose-Ann Johnson who previously set it in 2015.
Lass abides by what offensive coordinator Matt Schmidt calls “walling up” and the results have consistently placed her in the right position.
“I’ve told Coach Burt that I want to leave a mark here so this is a good way to start it,” Lass said.
Lass’s defense has left Burt extremely hopeful that she will be recognized on the Atlantic 10 All-Defensive Team at regular season’s end, though if she does not get the nod he is prepared to speak on her behalf once again in Richmond come conference tournament time.
When Lass has not scored the basketball this season, her defense has kept her in games as Burt has shown an unwavering amount of trust.
Lass perhaps showcased one of her best defensive efforts in a Duquesne uniform earlier this month making George Mason center Natalie Butler a nonfactor in the second half. Butler, who currently has 20 consecutive games with a double-double, grabbed one rebound in the fourth quarter and her only two points in the final 10 minutes came on free throws. Butler also recorded six turnovers in the game. Lass also added four blocks for good measure against the player who may be named Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
While Lass joked to her past self to run more to prepare for her time at Duquesne, the message to the future Kadri had a different tone to it.
“However the last season went, you had a fun time, a good team and best friends forever,” she said. “Don’t forget your friends and coaches. I am thankful for everything I’ve had here and everything I’ve had the chance to do.”
As Duquesne heads into Sunday afternoon’s nationally televised contest against St. Bonaventure with a 17-3 overall record and 7-0 Atlantic 10 mark, Lass continues to want to have her name in the record books, but for a different reason.
“I won’t leave a big mark if our whole team won’t win,” said Lass. “I am happy about my individual success and all of that but still am even more excited about how well we are doing thus far this season.”