Thursday, May 24, 2018
Sports

St. Petersburg's Jerica Coley isn't fixating on WNBA

She left St. Petersburg as one of the city's most decorated high school basketball players, an unselfish teammate with the ability to take over a game when she needed to, with a basket or an assist or a steal.

But usually a basket.

And yet, college coaches weren't banging down Jerica Coley's door. USF said it had too many guards; same for Florida. Miami didn't have room, and the St. Petersburg Catholic star's smaller frame didn't help.

Here's what they missed out on:

Jerica Coley scored 3,073 points at Florida International.

She led all of Division I in scoring as a junior and a senior.

She won two Sun Belt Conference player of the year awards — the Golden Panthers moved to Conference USA before this past season — and she was one of five finalists for this year's Nancy Lieberman award given to the nation's best point guard.

Her number was retired during her senior season, while she was still active.

And she spawned one of the great hash tags in sports: #HolyColey.

When the WNBA draft is held tonight, the 5-foot-8 guard has a chance to be selected.

After all, this is a player who on one memorable night last month leapt a veritable Mount Swishmore of women's college basketball. With 42 points — her third 40-point performance of the season — against East Carolina on March 11, Coley passed USC's Cheryl Miller, Tennessee's Chamique Holds­claw, Connecticut's Maya Moore and Delaware's Elena Delle Donne on the Division I women's career scoring list to move into fifth all time.

#HolyColey, indeed.

• • •

Truthfully, Coley says, she hasn't given the WNBA much thought, except for the million times she has been asked about it, which has been a million times too many.

"It's not like it was ever a huge dream or anything," said Coley, who if anything thought she would end up being a professional tennis player, her sport of choice as a kid. She worked out at a combine two weeks ago in Tennessee. Afterward, she was approached by business card-wielding agents.

If Coley, the Tampa Bay Times' 2009 and 2010 girls basketball player of the year, is selected, she would be the second area player ever drafted right out of college, joining 2007's No. 6 overall pick Bernice Mosby, out of Hernando.

"She's surprised me," said Coley's father, Jerry. "But that's just hard work. She puts her mind to it and does it. And she's got a feel for the game."

That "feel" produced seasons of 23.4, 26.3 and 29.6 points per game, and career averages of 6.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.4 blocks.

"The total package," FIU coach Cindy Russo said.

But Coley will tell you that of all the accolades, she is most pleased with being named the conference student-athlete of the year. She is scheduled to complete an internship this year and graduate with a degree in dietetic nutrition, and she intends to attend graduate school.

Ultimately, she sees herself working in a hospital and is currently volunteering at Jackson Memorial.

She is so serious about her post-graduate career, you almost get the feeling that the WNBA is plan B.

"One step at a time," she says, with no indication which step is first.

• • •

When other schools passed on Coley, Russo was relieved.

Russo, who just completed her 35th season coaching FIU, saw something special when others didn't and recruited Coley with fingers crossed.

"I spent the whole summer with her, I maxed out on what I could do with her (when recruiting). I saw I was getting a steal," said Russo, who got more than even she expected, on and off the court.

Her C-USA coaching brethren have been sending Russo condolence cards. "I'm a little depressed right now," the coach said.

She decided to retire Coley's No. 22 this season, doing so at halftime of a men's game. Jerry and Cathy Coley drove down to see a gold banner with their daughter's name and number raised to the rafters.

"That doesn't happen too often," Jerry said.

Coley says her accomplishments haven't made her a celebrity at FIU, located in Miami, but that's not completely true. The hashtag, a website promoting her at holycoley.com, and her record-setting success have made her more visible than she might be comfortable being.

She is recognized as the school's most prolific and decorated women's basketball player, maybe the best athlete this side of T.Y. Hilton, and is quite popular.

"People love her," Russo said.

At the school's athletic banquet last week, which is attended by every athlete from football to basketball to tennis, Coley was recognized for her outstanding season and career.

Afterward, every athlete at the banquet stood and began to clap for their top women's basketball scorer, this shy, smart, sometimes goofy but always charming star.

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