David J. Neal

FIU guard Jerica Coley excelling on court, in classroom

Seven products of FIU’s women’s basketball program played professionally. Irony watch: The young woman on track to be the best player in the program’s history by statistics, already the best in the 33-year head coach’s opinion, might not follow that path.

“It’s crossed my mind. It’s a serious consideration,” junior guard Jerica Coley said of pro basketball. “I’m not exactly sure how it works. After four years, we have a master’s program here in nutrition, but I would apply to other places. I’ll just have to see how it works out. I want to get my master’s in my field first and however basketball falls into place ...”

FIU coach Cindy Russo said with certainty that Coley should be a WNBA draft pick: “She’ll definitely get a nice deal there.”

Presented with the possible dilemma of playing in Europe or going for her master’s, Coley said, “My master’s. If I start playing basketball, I’m not sure when I’ll come back. It’s my first choice anyway. I’ll stick with that.”

You’ve heard athletes say that before. If you had to bet on which athletes mean it most, even with options in her face, Coley wouldn’t be a bad wager. In 10 years, it’s not hard to imagine Coley in her envisioned career of hospital nutritionist. It’s part of what makes Coley safe for FIU to push out as one of the faces of its athletic department and the face of the women’s basketball program.

She truly worries about classes missed on road trips. She doesn’t make a mockery of the mythical student-athlete ideal by making a mockery of decorum and her native language on social media. If she wouldn’t win the gold medal for Least Likely FIU Athlete to Get into Trouble, she’s on the podium. Her humility’s real. Russo says Coley practices so hard, she’ll get rested for half the practice (which might be the only rest Coley gets — she averages 39:36 minutes per game).

She doesn’t have a big head, unless you count the Coley heads on a stick the FIU band holds up during home games.

“To see your face, a huge face in the band stands,” Coley said. “It was awkward. My teammates thought it was funny.”

Coley is also not comfortable seeing herself on billboards or school promotional materials.

“I go to school here and you want people to know more about the school,” she said. “Whatever they need to promote the school — not me — then it’s fine.”

Also, she’s got game.

Coley averages 23.3 points per game, third in the nation. Nobody else averages double figures scoring for FIU which makes it all the more remarkable that Coley averages a team-high 4.0 assists per game (second is Carmen Miloglav at 2.6 assists per game). She accounts for 46.4 percent of FIU’s blocked shots and 34.0 percent of the Panthers’ steals.

“Jerica is a quiet leader, a leader by example. She thinks she can do it all. She takes everything on her own shoulders. It would be a good idea if she engaged her teammates more,” Russo said. “[Thursday] night [against North Texas], they double- and triple-teamed her. She got our post players the ball and they stepped up.”

And every now and then Coley has an omnibus game, such as the 55-53 win against Arkansas-Little Rock when Coley poured in 37 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field and 16 of 21 from the line, led the team in blocks, steals and tied for the team-high in rebounds.

“Hopefully, I’ve become more of a team leader, vocally,” Coley said. “I know I’ve worked a lot on skill stuff, shooting and passing out of double teams, trying to look for other people on traps. Trying to become more of a facilitator than just a scorer. I think I’ve done all right. Obviously, I could do a whole lot better.”

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