With Kierstan Bell back in the roster, FGCU goals return to NCAA Tournament

When guard Kierstan Bell goes to the field, she already makes a new statement before the denunciation. The 6’1” Ohio State transfer repeatedly changes his hairstyle and color — it can be waves or curls, or maybe a Mohawk — and sports a tattoo on his right quad of the Bible verse Philippians 4:13.

After the game started, well, his “#MarchMaturity” kicked in. The Florida Gulf Coast star was averaging 23.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and ranked among the top five scorers in the nation at mid-January, less than two weeks before college basketball kicks into high gear. watershed moment when teams advance to the final month of the regular season in hopes of diving into the NCAA Tournament.

But on Jan. 19, in a game against Stetson — when Bell had declared for this year’s WNBA draft just hours earlier, Bell left the game after a turnover against two Stetson defenders. Her left knee had been bothering her for weeks, so it was the right decision. A few days later, Bell discovered that she had partially torn the meniscus in her left knee and decided to have surgery a week later.

“It was our turning point… a change of mindset that we had to lock ourselves into,” says teammate Tishara Morehouse.

Bell declared for the WNBA Draft shortly before being sidelined with a left knee injury.

But who would intervene? Everything was normal until it wasn’t.

The FGCU team, made up of graduate students and transfers from Power 5 and community colleges, features a roster where nearly half of its players are from the Midwest. Ten of the 16 players in the program don’t even come close to Fort Myers, Fla., where the FGCU is located in a state that connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

Random? Coincidence? Not at all.

The Eagles’ fast offense – anchored by extraordinary three-point shooting, consistent ball movement and exceptional defense – was built by a genius coach who has been with the program since its inception 20 years ago. A man of very few words with a dry sense of humor, it would be his strategy that would help the Eagles bounce back from Bell’s injury and keep them on course for the tournament.

Meet coach Karl Smesko.

“He looks like an emotionless muscle guy, but he’s really a prankster,” Morehouse says. “He always walks around in practice saying, ‘I’ve got EA’, code for extreme athletics.”

But the secret code of Smesko’s program architecture and its perpetual success is not so confidential. It is open to the public. Often seen pacing the sideline with his arms folded and sporting his best power face, Smesko’s coaching history dates back to Walsh University (Ohio), Maryland and IPFW (now Purdue Fort Wayne) in Indiana. . Smesko, an Ohio native, took a risk leaving Indiana in 2002, traveling nearly 19 hours south on I-75 to Fort Myers.

At the time, FGCU had only been offering classes for six years. Smesko didn’t have the lavish desk with the elaborate chair, tall glass window, and extravagant mahogany desk when the university hired him. He shared an impromptu trailer with other athletic department coaches. After scouting and building a team, his first sessions with the players took place on an outdoor field as the university built a new arena.

Smesko never yells at his players, but his acute awareness of player development is the foundation of his coaching philosophy. “He’s always evolving, watching coaching videos, listening to podcasts, even learning new TikTok slogans to incorporate,” says FGCU assistant coach Chelsea Lyles.

But if there was a number – akin to the world’s greatest athletes, like LeBron James, Tom Brady and Diana Taurasi, trusting their personal trainers to hone their craft – Smesko’s secret plan lies in his coaching trio. assistants. “They have a great way of connecting and keeping players on track, which helps us take the program to the next level,” Smesko said.

Assistants are essential sources when it comes to recruiting, especially in today’s university landscape which has created far-reaching change due to name, image and likeness and transfer portal. The FGCU coaching trio – Lyles, Shannon Murphy and Mani Pierce – all played for Smesko and were conditioned by his tutelage.

“If you had told me I would still be here in 2022, I wouldn’t have believed you…it’s amazing to have a front row seat to see the program evolve,” Lyles says.

With players coming in and out of the transfer gate like popcorn in a microwave bag, Lyles believes this has been to FGCU’s advantage.

Smesko has been with FGCU since the program's inception in 2002.

Smesko has been with FGCU since the program’s inception in 2002.

“[Smesko is] has always had its core values, but it will change things based on the players we have,” Lyles said. “A lot of children don’t come here [FGCU] dropped out of high school because they want to experience the Power 5…but the success of the program isn’t just about the field. It’s the relationships he’s built through player development that speaks to success on the pitch.

FGCU also emphasizes personal development, including life lessons on everything from electoral voting processes, to how to use a credit card, to the importance of building credit at home. ‘to come up.

This holistic philosophy has helped the Eagles land talented four-year-olds and transfers like Lyles, FGCU all-time leading scorer Sarah Hansen, Keri Jewett-Giles, Premier League player Whitney Knight. school to be selected in the WNBA. draft, and Nasrin Ulel. Players of this caliber are the reason Smesko and FGCU have been able to achieve 12 consecutive 25-win seasons and 30 winning seasons in four of the last seven years. The 12-time ASUN Coach of the Year also eclipsed the 600 win mark in 726 games, faster than many of college basketball’s most revered coaches (Pat Summitt, 734 games; Tara VanDerveer, 767; C. Vivian Stringer, 785).

The FGCU has won 12 regular season championships, including five consecutive ones since 2018, eight ASUN conference tournament titles and nine NCAA tournament appearances, including two at the Division II level (2006 and 2007). However, Smesko is not satisfied with making it to the big dance and only going to the second round.

And Smesko’s deep-rooted strategy was on display when Bell’s teammates took charge in his absence.

Morehouse, a 5’3″ senior guard, who hails from the same junior college as Lyles, has always been one to overcome adversity. First-team All ASUN selection has a jersey of 76ers legend Allen Iverson, her favorite basketball player, hanging in her room to remind her of her determination. “He showed me that there were no limits when it came to being awesome,” she says.

With Morehouse taking on more work with Bell out of training, Kerstie Phills has been the glue that holds the team accountable. The daughter of the late Bobby Phills, who played with Cleveland and Charlotte in the NBA, Kerstie is a graduate student who was recently accepted into Physician Assistant School and has averaged nearly a double-double in the absence. from Bell. “She played the best basketball of her career,” adds Smesko.

When FGCU picked up a win over ranked team LSU and a double-overtime thriller against Nia Clouden and Michigan State early in the season, it was Phills who “made sure we stayed together,” Morehouse says.

Kendall Spray, the transfer from Clemson whose 458 three-point shots rank fourth on the NCAA career list, is a walking bucket. “We don’t even look to see if the bullet goes in when it fires,” Bell says. “We just come back in defense because we know it’s going to come in.”

While the team has grown stronger, it’s no secret what Bell brings to the team. Bell has the versatility to score, handle the ball, shoot and defend with his length and size. But it’s her IQ and her ability to consistently cut to the basket on scoring opportunities that make her exceptional, says Smesko.

Bell, who grew up playing quarterback and football safety as a kid in Ohio, was determined to return to the field this season. With the continued support of her teammates, family and faith, the 2022 ASUN Player of the Year returned for the Eagles’ final two games of the season against Liberty and Jacksonville and scored a combined 46 points.

The FGCU will host Jacksonville State in Saturday’s conference title game. If the Eagles win, they will find out their standings in this year’s NCAA Tournament on Draft Sunday. With players like Bell and company, Florida Gulf Coast is able to return once again to where the program has become a staple, the Big Dance. This is the March mentality.

Will the Eagles make a deep run? Smesko has spent his life preparing for when that will happen. “I spent time preparing for this game,” Smesko said. “We haven’t done it yet, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we will.”

Comments are closed.