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Alan Diaz, Associated Press
Florida International's Jerica Coley stretches before practice in Miami, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012. The one-time tennis phenom is taking off at FIU, where the sophomore guard is the second-leading scorer in the nation so far this season.

MIAMI — Jerica Coley's numbers only tell a part of her story.

Second in the nation at 24.3 points per game, the Florida International sophomore guard is having a breakout season that she never expected.

She leads the Panthers in nearly every category — points (more than any two teammates combined), assists, rebounds and minutes, all while earning about a 3.4 average in one of the school's toughest majors, dietetics and nutrition.

Not bad for someone who wasn't even on the Panthers' radar the first time they saw her play. Turns out, they were recruiting her cousin instead.

"When I saw her, I said, 'We're going to get her,'" FIU coach Cindy Russo said. "We knew right away. Is she better than I thought? Yeah. But I knew she was going to be special from the first time I saw her."

Which, it turns out, was news to Coley herself.

Coley's primary focus as a kid was tennis, and was one of the state's best players in high school. Basketball was something she picked up in middle school because her schedule didn't allow for much tennis, but the court where she could wield her racket still took precedence over the court with the backboards at either end.

She played AAU on a team coached by her aunt Tamika Coley, who was a 2,000-point scorer in her college career at Central Florida.

But it wasn't until late in high school when Coley realized that basketball might be her collegiate calling.

"I liked it," Coley said. "Not as much as tennis, but I liked it. ... I definitely still love tennis. Part of the reason I probably chose basketball over tennis was I kind of like the team environment more."

Years later, FIU is benefiting greatly from that decision.

The Panthers are 13-7, eyeing their first 20-win season in a decade, and Coley trails only Delaware's Elena Delle Donne on the national scoring charts. Coley is 13 points shy of becoming the 22nd player in FIU history to score 1,000, and at her current pace would be one of the school's top-five all-time scorers by the end of her junior season. In the most recent Sun Belt Conference stats, Coley had a seven-point-per-game lead in the league scoring race.

FIU's sports information staff has dubbed her "HolyColey" — a Twitter hashtag that now pops up regularly on the school's feed.

"I just think it's funny, a funny name," Coley said. "My teammates constantly make fun of it."

She's scored in double figures in 23 consecutive games, starting with the last three contests of the 2010-11 season. Her shooting from the field and the foul line are both improved this season — her 3-point percentage is considerably better — even though she made the switch to full-time point guard after last year. Coley insists her point total is something she never thinks about, but she quickly adds that it's to FIU's advantage for defenses to fixate on her.

"They don't send one or two people," Russo said. "They send whole committees."

The way Coley has it figured, teams have two options: Double-team her and play 3-against-4 with her teammates, or play her 1-on-1 and take their chances.

Either way, she likes FIU's odds.

"If we lose, then I think I should have done more," Coley said. "But if we win and I score 16, as long as we won in a good fashion, to me the scoring is not a big deal."

There's a certain irony in that Coley is a scoring point guard — one of the best ever to play in the NBA is Isiah Thomas, who is the men's coach at FIU. Much in the same way Thomas often did as an NBA player, Coley said she goes into games with a pass-first mentality at the outset, knowing FIU is better when more people are involved in the offense.

"I know the defense will come out attacking me," Coley said. "So it's a lot easier to get everyone else going at the start of the game. When there's two people on me, someone else is open. Once we start doing that, everything else just comes together."

Russo said she can prove what kind of player Coley is, and it has nothing to do with her stats.

For all the categories she leads FIU in, there's one that doesn't appear on the boxscore: Knee pads used.

Russo has a rule in practice that everyone must wear knee pads for extra protection. The ones Coley was wearing in practice Wednesday had signs of scrapes and wear, evidence that she's been diving on the floor rather often. And that pair was at least her third already this season, the others already having been worn out.

"It was a perfect storm that brought her here," Russo said. "She evolves every day. Just a delightful young lady."

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