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With Kierstan Bell Back in Lineup, FGCU Aiming For Return to the Big Dance

Coach Karl Smesko’s system has helped the Eagles get through some late-season tests. Now, FGCU hopes to lock up an NCAA tournament berth.

When guard Kierstan Bell takes the court, she already makes a new statement before tip-off. The 6’1” Ohio State transfer repeatedly changes her hair style and its color—it could be waves or curls, or maybe a Mohawk—and sports a tattoo on her right quad of the Philippians 4:13 bible verse.

After play begins, well, her “#MarchMaturity” kicks in. The Florida Gulf Coast star was averaging 23.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and ranked among the nation’s top five scorers by mid-January, less than two weeks before college basketball shifts gears to that decisive time when teams make their push toward the final month of the regular season with the hopes of diving into the NCAA tournament.

But on Jan. 19 in a matchup against Stetson—when just hours earlier Bell declared for this year’s WNBA draft, Bell left the game after a turnaround jumper against two Stetson defenders. Her left knee had been bothering her for weeks, so it felt like the right decision. A few days later, Bell found out she partially tore her meniscus in her left knee and decided to undergo surgery a week later.

“That was our turning point … a shift in mindset in which we had to lock in,” says teammate Tishara Morehouse.

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

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

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

FGCU’s team, composed 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 program’s 16 players aren’t even from anywhere remotely close to Fort Myers, Florida, where FGCU is located in a state that links the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

Random? Coincidence? Not at all.

The Eagles’ fast-paced offense—anchored by extraordinary three-point shooting, constant ball movement and exceptional defense—was built by a mastermind 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 rebound from Bell’s injury and keep them on its tournament track.

Meet coach Karl Smesko.

“He looks like just a muscular guy with no emotion but he’s really a jokester,” Morehouse says. “He always walks around in practice saying, ‘I got EA,’ code for extreme athleticism.”

But the secret code to the architecture of Smesko’s program and its perpetual success is not that confidential. It’s open for public viewing. Often seen pacing the sidelines with his arms folded and sporting his best power face, Smesko’s coaching history stretches back to Walsh University (Ohio), Maryland and IPFW (now Purdue Fort Wayne) in Indiana. Smesko, an Ohio native, took a risk by 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 office with the elaborate chair, big glass window and extravagant mahogany desk when the university hired him. He shared an impromptu trailer with other coaches in the athletic department. After scouting and assembling a team, his earliest sessions with players were held on an outdoor court as the university built a new arena.

Smesko never hollers at his players, but his keen awareness for player development sits as the foundation of his coaching philosophy. “He’s always evolving, watching coaching videos, listening to podcasts, even learning new catchphrases from TikTok to incorporate,” says FGCU assistant coach Chelsea Lyles.

But if there was a cipher—similar to the world’s greatest athletes, like LeBron James, Tom Brady and Diana Taurasi, trusting their personal trainers to help perfect their craft—Smesko’s confidential blueprint lies within his trio of assistant coaches. “They have a great way of connecting and keeping players on the right track, which helps us move the program to the next level,” Smesko says.

Assistants are essential sources when it comes to recruiting, especially in today’s college landscape that has created a wide-ranging shift due to name, image and likeness and the transfer portal. FGCU’s trio of coaches—Lyles, Shannon Murphy and Mani Pierce—all played for Smesko and have been conditioned with his tutelage.

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

With players hopping in and out of the transfer portal like popcorn in a microwave bag, Lyles believes it has been to FGCU’s benefit.

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] always had his core values but he’ll change things up based on the players we have,” Lyles said. “A lot of kids may not come here [FGCU] out of high school because they want the Power 5 experience… but the success of the program is not simply built on the court. It’s the relationships he’s built through developing players that speaks to the on-court success.”

FGCU also puts a strong focus on personal development, including life lessons on anything from election voting processes to how to use a credit card to the importance of building credit in the future.

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

FGCU has earned 12 regular-season championships, including five straight since 2018, eight ASUN conference tournament titles and nine NCAA tournament appearances with two at the Division II level (2006 and ‘07). However, Smesko isn’t satisfied with getting to the Big Dance and only going as far as the second round.

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

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

With Morehouse taking on more workload with Bell out of the lineup, 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 to physician assistant school and averaged close to a double-double in Bell’s absence. “She played the best basketball of her career,” Smesko adds.

When FGCU pulled off a win against a ranked LSU squad and a double-overtime thriller against Nia Clouden and Michigan State early in the season, it was Phills who “made sure we kept it together,” says Morehouse.

Kendall Spray, the Clemson transfer whose 458 three-pointers sits fourth among NCAA’s career list, is a walking bucket. “We don’t even watch to see if the ball is going in when she shoots,” Bell says. “We just get back on defense because we know it’s going in.”

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

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

FGCU will host Jacksonville State in Saturday’s conference title game. If the Eagles win, they will find out their seeding in this year’s NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday. With players like Bell and company, Florida Gulf Coast sits in position to again return to the place where the program has become a fixture, the Big Dance. It’s March Maturity.

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