Florida International U

FIU Panthers’ Jerica Coley scores 29 in home finale

Among the parallels between FIU and UCF — big city state schools in Florida now among the largest in the nation — is the last name of the top scorer in each one’s women’s basketball history. And if not for UCF’s Coley, FIU wouldn’t have its Coley to honor during Saturday’s Senior Night.

Or, perhaps FIU’s Coley would be on the tennis team.

Jerica Coley compiled 29 points, seven rebounds, three blocks and two assists in her last home game as FIU lost 72-56 to Old Dominion at U.S. Century Bank Arena. Among those giving her an ovation as FIU coach Cindy Russo took her out with 12.2 seconds left was Tamika Coley, Jerica’s aunt and mother of FIU junior guard Kamika Idom.

Ask Jerica Coley — two-time Honorable Mention All-American, 3.41 grade point average, the FIU athletic program’s brightest individual athlete light the past two years — how much her aunt had to do with her playing basketball and she’ll say, “She had everything to do with it.”

So much so that Jerica Coley refers to her relative and mentor not as “Aunt Tamika” but rather “Coach Tamika.”

“Coach Tamika” played in the post at UCF and led the Knights in scoring and rebounding every season, ending her career in 1996 as the school’s career leader in both categories. She decided to put together an AAU team in 2005.

“We were looking for girls from the community,” Tamika Coley said. “We were looking for girls who were good kids that we knew we’d have some parental support and involvement. That’s how we wanted to build our foundation. She was a really good person. We felt she’d be a good part of what we were trying to do as far as the team unity and what we were trying to do for the community.”

Tamika said Jerica always had the self-effacing, even-keeled personality that makes her universally liked (“loved,” Russo corrected) among teammates, other athletes and fellow FIU students. What Tamika recalls as the yellow flag waved by Jerica’s mother, Cathy Coley, came from a more basic on-court issue.

“[Cathy Coley] laughed and said, ‘She doesn’t know anything about basketball,’ ” Tamika Coley said. “We said, ‘Well, that’s for us to figure out. She’s athletic, just give us a chance and let her come out and play.’ She did her eighth grade year. We developed from there.”

Said Jerica: “I don’t think I was all that good. I was just glad to be on their team.”

The smooth, flowing movement she displays looking for jumper space used to be used for chasing down attempted winners and setting up returns. Tennis was Jerica’s game before basketball and remained so all the way through St. Petersburg Catholic High, where she went to the state final in doubles.

But Tamika Coley quickly saw something in her niece that reminded her of herself, something that helped turn a good tennis player into a very good basketball player, something Russo echoes when talking about Jerica.

“She’s probably one of the hardest-working kids you’ll ever meet,” Tamika said. “Always eager to learn. Just so coachable. Such a great team player from the time she began the game. Even before she became the great elite player, she always worked hard. She always worked within her teammates.”

No matter how many suicide sprints and pushups coaches ladled onto Jerica and her teammates as she developed a skill, she took it and kept practicing.

“She always responded to the challenge of becoming a great player,” Tamika said. “So this is no surprise to any of us — the records she’s broken, the accolades she’s had — because she’s such a hard worker and had great energy, enjoyed doing it.”

Jerica still works out with her aunt and, occasionally, her aunt’s St. Petersburg High team.

“She’s a really good coach,” Jerica said. “We practice with her all the time. She’s really big on fundamentals, so we practice that. Even when I go back home, she lets us come to her gym, get up shots and do whatever.”

So, the natural question: who wins at one-on-one? The 5-10 1/2 aunt or the 5-8, 22-year-old niece?

“Well … she did beat me a while ago when we did play one-on-one,” Jerica said with a glint in her narrowed eyes.

Tamika concurs that she won the last time they went one-on-one, during Jerica’s sophomore year.

When it’s pointed out that was two years ago, Tamika Coley laughed, “That’s not an accident!”