Ines Nezerwa was, by far, the most improved player on last season’s Iowa State women’s basketball team.
From the pair of exhibition games they played to kick off the year at Hilton, to its loss to Missouri State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, one thing stayed on the team stayed constant: Nezerwa kept getting better.
The Bujumbura, Burundi native will have another year to do more of the same, since Iowa State’s waiver to the NCAA asking for one more year of eligibility was approved this spring.
That’s something that not only great for the basketball team, but also for Nezerwa.
“It was a really big moment for her and for all of us because she is someone who came to school to get an education in a world class place,” head coach Bill Fennelly said. “It wasn’t just about basketball. This is something that’s going to change her life.”
Fennelly added that that is probably a big statement, but it’s true for Nezerwa on a few different levels.
She didn’t know what it was like to play basketball on the court or what was going on off of it.
“She went into last year not just not knowing what basketball and school is like at Iowa State, but also not knowing her future,” Fennelly said. “I think now she can settle in and say, ‘I know I have one more year. I can make plans.’ That will relax her.”
Getting Nezerwa comfortable could pay big dividends for the Cyclones as well.
When she was the most tuned into her game, Iowa State had some big nights on the offensive side of the ball.
The team was 9-1 when Nezerwa scored six points or more last season and a perfect 6-0 when she was in the double digits.
The lone loss in those games came against eventual national champion Baylor.
“I think [Nezerwa’s] got a lot of physical skills,” Fennelly said. “She’s a competitive kid. She wants to win. She accepts coaching as well as anyone on our team. We’ve just got to clean up some things. She can’t turn the ball over as much.”
That’s where the focus is turning to this off-season.
Fennelly and his staff will try to make sure the lows are not zero or two point performances for Nezerwa if they can’t limit those nights altogether.
“With Ines last year, there were a lot of high’s, and there was some not-so-high’s,” Fennelly said. “We’ve got to be a little more consistent so that the high’s are high, but when we drop a little we don’t drop to the point where she doesn’t impact our success at all.”
It’s all about bringing the basement a little closer to the ceiling.
That’s because when Nezerwa is up by that ceiling, the results are booming.
For instance, Nezerwa led the team with 15 points against Miami to help the Cyclones win the Preseason Women’s NIT Championship, and take home a trophy at Hilton Coliseum.
“I think she’s got the ability to impact our team,” Fennelly said. “You saw it in the Miami game. I think now that she knows that she’s coming back, has another year, and is adjusted to the college life, I think she has a really good chance to be one of those surprise players that going into the year you don’t accept them to have that kind of year.”
That will need to be the case for a team that wants to return to the NCAA Tournament after losing perhaps the best player in school history and a point guard to the pros.
Nezerwa and company, however, are up to the challenge.
“Her teammates love her. Her coaches love her. I think she’ll be one of the leaders on our team,” Fennelly said.