Kierstan Bell ringing up big numbers at Florida Gulf Coast

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In this photo provided by Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) Kierstan Bell celebrates after a play against Temple, Dec. 6, 2020, in Fort Myers, Fla. FGCU transfer Bell is fifth in the nation in scoring at more than 25 points per game, and has the Eagles poised for another run at the NCAA tournament. (Brad Young/Florida Gulf Coast University via AP)

Kierstan Bell had never even heard of Florida Gulf Coast at this time last year. She was a freshman at Ohio State then, a few weeks away from announcing her plans to transfer.

Little did FGCU know it was about to hit the jackpot.

The 6-foot-1 Bell, a five-star recruit with WNBA potential, made the decision to play for the Eagles and both parties reaped immediate benefits. She’s rewriting the FGCU record book, the Eagles are undefeated with her in the lineup and once again seem like the mid-major that no Power Five school will want to see coming if they make next month’s NCAA Tournament.

Bell is averaging 25.2 points and 11.2 rebounds, joining Michigan’s Naz Hillmon as the only two players in Division I women’s basketball with those numbers. She is leading a team that is 19-2 overall, riding an 18-game winning streak and in command for the ASUN regular-season title.

“We thought within our system she would have a lot of freedom to do different things and show off her versatility, that she would really excel,” FGCU coach Karl Smesko said. “And I really thought she could become like a first round WNBA draft pick — although I admit she’s come along much faster than even I thought.”

Smesko has built a program that gets national attention each year, and with good reason. The Eagles’ worst record in the past dozen years — worst record — is 26-9. They’re leading all Division I women’s teams in 3-pointers made per game this season, without resorting to some gimmicky up-tempo style.

They have the nation’s third-longest winning streak overall and, by far, the nation’s longest road winning streak at 21 in a row. They’re just outside of making the AP Top 25 and are favored to make their seventh NCAA tournament in the last nine years that there has been one; they almost certainly would have gotten in last year if the tournament was played.

Bell did her homework and liked everything she saw.

“I just wanted to be a part of it,” Bell said. “Coach Smesko, he’s a great coach, been here for a long time, he knows what he’s talking about. So, I just wanted to have a connection with a great coach and have a connection off the court, too. That’s why we came.”

There was symmetry from the jump. When Bell entered the transfer portal, her family had already decided to move to the southwest Florida area, not far from FGCU’s campus. She found out Smesko was an Ohio native, like her. She was impressed by the program’s long run of overwhelming success.

The Eagles didn’t offer her a scholarship immediately — it took three meetings before both sides determined it was the right fit.

In April, she committed. The Eagles started this season 1-2 before the NCAA sent word in late November that Bell was eligible to play without sitting out a full season.

They’re 18-0 since.

“I just do what I do,” Bell said. “I just go out and play basketball, I’m not really a selfish player. I like getting my teammates better every day at practice. I like just getting them involved and being a team player.”

Bell is the first to say that she’s hardly doing this alone. FGCU lost 90% of its scoring from last season and has reloaded on the fly; its top three scorers this season — Bell, guard TK Morehouse (18.3 points per game) and Aaliyah Stanley (9.5 ppg) — all are transfer newcomers.

And even in a season where the Eagles are practicing less because of COVID-19 protocols and are in a very different routine, things are clicking.

“The team has jelled, in terms of just enjoying being around each other, and working together with so many new players and people in different roles,” Smesko said. “That usually takes quite a bit of time.”

FGCU has never had someone average 20 points for a full season; Bell is going to change that. She’s 155 points from the school’s single-season scoring record, which also looks in jeopardy with four regular season games left and then postseason matchups. She’s shooting 58% for the season, second-best in school history. Her 42-point game against Jacksonville this past Sunday was another school record.

The nation is noticing: Bell picked up national player-of-the-week honors after scoring 78 points in two games last weekend.

“Bell’s obviously a skilled and talented player,” Bellarmine coach Chancellor Dugan said earlier this season.

She was a three-time Ohio high school player of the year; the only other player in state history who can say that is LeBron James. Bell averaged 10.9 points last season at Ohio State, then decided to transfer for personal reasons.

So far, she and FGCU seem like a perfect match.

“I like where things are going,” Bell said.

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More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/College-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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