She is a braided wonder who slashes to the basket and generates excitement for Florida International University. With a crossover dribble that freezes defenders in their hightops, and with a feathery touch to match, guard Jerica Coley has become a scoring machine.
Coley, a former standout at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, is the third-leading scorer in Division I women's basketball, averaging 24 points. She has scored in double figures in her past 31 games, dating to the final three games of last season. And she has injected life into the Panthers (20-9), helping them reach their first 20-win season in a decade and securing the No. 3 seed in the Sun Belt Conference tournament, which starts Saturday in Hot Springs, Ark. FIU opens against Louisiana.
By attacking the rim and hitting shot after shot, Coley, a sophomore, has become so dynamic that FIU's sports information department is promoting her as an All-America candidate. Coley now has a nickname (Holy Coley) that appears regularly on Twitter hash tags and a YouTube video produced by the school.
"I definitely would not have expected any of this," Coley said. "It's hard to say this was a goal of mine, to be that high in the nation in scoring. I didn't even know it at first. I think I first heard about that from one of my coaches."
In high school, Coley thrived in the spotlight. She was the Times' All-Suncoast Player of the Year twice. In her senior season at St. Petersburg Catholic, she averaged 23 points, seven blocks, five steals and four assists. Her best game came in the playoffs when she scored 39 and was one assist from a quadruple double in a win over Lakeland Tenoroc.
Her performance prompted Tenoroc coach Vic Smith to say: "We didn't run out of gas. We ran into Coley. The scouting reports said she was the ice cream, cake and sliced bread. They didn't lie."
Still, no big-time program in the state wanted her because she is only 5 feet 7.
"I don't know the reason why some of the bigger schools passed on me because I never heard from them," Coley said. "They didn't recruit me. I did hear from my high school coaches that it was probably because of my size."
FIU offered her a scholarship and a chance to play right away.
"They told me we would all get an opportunity no matter what grade we were in," Coley said. "That was exciting to me and a big reason I wanted to go there."
As a freshman, Coley got significant playing time, averaging 14 points.
"I just loved the way she played and that's before I even knew her as a person," FIU coach Cindy Russo said. "And then after I started to know her, I became constantly amazed all the time."
Everyone knows Coley can score. But she has also had to provide leadership this season. She took on that role with the same determination she shows zig-zagging through defenders.
"When I first came in I had to adjust to players being bigger, stronger and faster," Coley said. "Now, I'm just trying to take on whatever role we need to help everyone on the team. I'm not going out there and trying to score every time with the ball.
"The points are nice, but the only thing I'm worried about, especially at this point in the season, is winning."
Bob Putnam can be reached at [email protected]