New school, big stats, much growth for FGCU’s Bell

Kierstan Bell exults after scoring against Temple. Brad Young photo.

If she makes a particularly key shot, Kierstan Bell might be yelling about it afterward, with all the joyful, clenched-fisted bravado that she has – which is a lot.

Part of that comes from her inbred optimism, which gives way to a quick smile and a laugh off the court. But during a game, it’s all about winning for the Florida Gulf Coast sophomore transfer.

“I was always really into sports, and I was really competitive,” Bell said. “It was like, ‘I can beat you in this and this.’ I didn’t care what sport it was; I could beat you in anything.”

So far in her first six games for the Eagles, Bell is beating everyone at everything, including herself in her own past performances.

Last year at Ohio State, she averaged 10.9 points and 4.4 rebounds per game on 39 percent overall shooting, including 32 percent from the three-point line. This season Bell is averaging 23 points and 11.8 rebounds per outing on 57 percent shooting, while going 42 percent from behind the arc. She also dishes almost three assists on average and has 20 blocks so far – seven shy of her freshman year total.

In her debut for FGCU, Bell scored 24 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. Three weeks later she scored 32 points against Webber International in a mere 21 minutes. The least she has scored in a game so far is 14, and this week she was named one of the NCAA’s “starting five” players.

Longtime Eagles coach Karl Smesko said Bell is multi-talented.

“We try to utilize her and allow her to show her versatility. She does everything for us,” he said. “She reads defense so well; she can read screens. She’s so quick. When she catches the ball, she can get to her shot exceptionally quickly.”

“She can attack the dribble or knock down the three, and she’s good at both of those things. She has really good court vision. Defensively, she alters a lot of shots because she has such good timing and instincts inside for blocking shots.”

For Bell, a former three-time Ms. Ohio Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American who was ranked eighth in her recruiting class, the talent and potential was always there. But in Smesko, she has found the right teacher.

“Last year I had a lot of frustration trying to get into what (Ohio State) coach (Kevin) McGuff wanted for the team,” Bell said. “I’m doing much better this year because I understand what (Smesko) wants.”

She said it is all about developing the right techniques.

“My shooting percentage is going up, and….it’s being in the right position and knowing the right technique,” Bell said. “Every day I’m learning new information – new plays, new techniques – just soaking up all the information and then going out there and playing basketball.”

Smesko said Bell is a great student of the game.

Kierstan Bell sizes up the court. FGCU Athletics photo.

“Obviously she’s incredibly talented, skilled and athletic, but one thing that helps her excel is she picks up things very quickly,” he said. “She’s extraordinarily bright. If you show her something or ask her to do something, she’s able to pick it up as fast as any player we’ve ever had.”

“Her basketball IQ is exceptional, and that’s how she’s been able to transition to a new offense and a new style of play so quickly.”

Bell has had plenty of sports experience in her 20 years. Her first word as a baby was “ball,” and she played multiple sports from an early age, including basketball, football, track and field, softball and gymnastics. Her first love was football, which she played up until the seventh grade, at which time she decided to turn in her cleats.

“The boys started getting bigger and faster, and I didn’t want to deal with all of that, so I turned my focus to basketball,” Bell said.

For as good a fit as it turned out to be, Bell’s journey to FGCU was somewhat circuitous. As she announced to her family at the end of last season that she planned to transfer schools, they told her they were moving to Florida. Bell told them she was coming with them, and her uncle, who already lived in that area, told her he’d help her find a new school. He suggested FGCU, and so began the conversation between Smesko and Bell.

“I tried to paint a picture for her around how she’d be utilized if she came here, and how she’d be able to use all the multi-dimensional aspects of her game,” Smesko said.

Bell characterized their mutual interview process as a series of productive discussions.

“We were having good, honest conversation,” Bell said. “A lot of players don’t sit down and have honest conversations with their coaches, but we just wanted to be straightforward, and we connected very well.”

When FGCU made Bell an offer, she took it right away.

She missed the first three games of the season waiting for her transfer waiver to be approved. Now she is part of an offense that features five players shooting 43 percent or more. They are 7-2 despite losing 90 percent of their scoring offense to graduation last year. The Eagles are at the top of the ASUN Conference, as they begin league play Saturday.

Junior guard Emma List said Bell has become the emotional leader of the team.

“Kierstan’s a great player and definitely an energy-giver, trying to keep others up and keep the energy going,” List said. “She’s someone who will knock down a shot when you need it and who will play defense, as well. She’s a great teammate – someone you always want on your team.”

Smesko has encouraged Bell to keep her passion and fire channeled constructively, as exulting after plays has earned her technical fouls in the past.

“She does want to get better, and she gets excited,” he said. “If we do a shooting drill, there’s genuine enthusiasm for winning that drill. She wants to win; she wants to be the best scorer on the team.”

Mostly, Smesko’s focus now is teaching Bell to make good decisions in game situations.

“A lot of times when you have someone this talented, they try to go for the tougher play, even though an easier play is available,” he said. “A lot of times it works out, but it doesn’t work out at a higher percentage.”

Bell is learning quickly. According to Smesko, her statistical efficiency is in the 90th percentile.

“She’s a WNBA talent, and has the ability to be a first-round draft choice,” he said. “We’re trying to develop her for that so she’ll have the perimeter skills she’ll need offensively; that she’ll be able to guard multiple positions.”

Smesko said he dissected Bell’s statistics at Ohio State, including her efficiency, and told her where her numbers could be. And even as good as they are now, he thinks her efficiency could be even higher.

Kierstan Bell goes up for a basket in her record night against Davidson. Brad Young photo.

“She’s really coachable, and the sky is the limit for her,” he said. “She’s an exceptional talent who’s gotten better every week she’s been here. She’s exceeded our expectations.”

At 6-1, Bell seems taller because of her wide frame, which can intimidate opponents. But her self-taught confidence is brand new this season.

“I knew I was really good, but I didn’t know how good I could be until I told myself I was going to be good,” Bell said.

FGCU tips off conference play against North Alabama Saturday.