Nattily dressed in New York City to attend the WNBA Draft on April 11, FGCU’s Kierstan Bell and Karl Smesko stood and hugged after her name was announced in the first round, 11th overall.
Only the second FGCU player ever drafted and the first to be selected among the top 12 picks of the first round, Bell held her new Las Vegas Aces jersey aloft in a fitting cap to what was yet another season of greatness from Smesko’s program.
Program-best Top 25 rankings, regular and postseason ASUN titles yet again, a third victory in the NCAA Tournament and, yes, one audaciously thrilling half game of basketball in pursuit of the school’s first ever Sweet 16 berth, were just some of the headlines.
“There’s not many teams who got to experience all the things we did, especially as a mid-major,” says Smesko, whose squad finished 30-3 – his seventh season with at least 30 wins in 20 years at FGCU – and No. 23 and No. 20 final rankings in the media and coaches polls, respectively.
“I appreciate it all,” Smesko said.
FGCU, which entered the Associated Press poll on Nov. 23 for its earliest entry into the poll in program history, defeated 16th-ranked Virginia Tech 84-81 with a thrilling finish in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in College Park, Maryland.
Excluding the 2019-20 postseason, which was canceled at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was FGCU’s eighth NCAA Tournament appearance in 10 possible chances and fifth consecutive.
Bell, who missed nine games after undergoing surgery in January for a partially torn meniscus,
was named the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year in both of her seasons at FGCU after transferring from Ohio State, had been exceptional for decisive stretches of multiple late-season victories.
That included a regular-season win at Liberty to clinch the top seed for the ASUN Tournament, a pair of stellar second-halves in the conference tournament defeats of Stetson and Jacksonville State, and more winning moments late in the defeat of Virginia Tech.
But faced with limited practice, short rest and a long-armed Maryland squad shooting superbly from outside, Bell wasn’t able to summon more heroics in the 89-65 Maryland win.
“We were asking quite a lot of her. She hadn’t been practicing much up and down,” Smesko said. “It was kind of the same way for T.K. It (the foot injury) was the worst it’s been. We weren’t sure she was going to be able to play at all. I feel bad for her because she was far from 100 percent.” The loss dropped FGCU to 0-3 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and underscored how difficult it is to win on what is always the home floor of a top- four seed in the second round.
Without Bell – who joined former FGCU star Whitney Knight, the No. 15 overall pick by the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016, as WNBA draftees – the task won’t get any easier. Morehouse and fellow starter Emma List return next season, but the Eagles also lose Spray, Karli Seay, Kerstie Phills, Tyra Cox and Andrea Cecil from the main rotation.
As has always been the case in his program, though, Smesko expects the Eagles to regroup and take another shot at new heights, which helps explain why they’ve been great all along.
“We want to get to the NCAA Tournament. We want to win championships. We want to go as far as we can,” he said. “But we still realize that we’ve been right about the most successful mid major over the last 15 years. We’ve really played really well for a long time.”