CANTON, OH Like a lot of high school seniors, Kierstan Bell is looking forward to college because of the independence it will provide.
One difference. Hers will come on the court.
“No more box-and-one,” the Ohio State recruit said, laughing. “They’ll have to play man-to-man.”
During Bell’s four-year term at McKinley, it often looked like she was being defended by the Secret Service. One person in front, one in back and several others watching her out of the corners of their eyes.
Didn’t matter. Thanks to a rare combination of size (6-foot-1), skill and athleticism, Bell put together one of the most dominant résumés in Ohio history, finishing as the state’s fourth-leading scorer while going 93-14 with three district titles and one regional title.
On Thursday, she did something that no other girl in Ohio history has done — win Ms. Basketball for a third time.
“I give it all to God,” said Bell, a McDonald's All-American and the nation's sixth-rated recruit in the Class of 2019. “God put me on this earth for a reason. He gave me a good talent and a gift, so I owe it back. I put it all on the floor and tried to use that gift.”
Added McKinley coach Pam Davis, "Any time you win such a prestigious award, there's a lot of pressure to repeat. We've always tried to stress that this award is more than just an individual award. It's a team award. It's a program award. It's a community award. So many people put time and energy into making her the player that she is and I think she understands that."
Bell averaged 27.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.4 blocks, 3.8 steals and 3.0 assists this season for the Bulldogs (25-2), who shared the Federal League title with state semifinalist GlenOak and who lost on a last-second shot to Toledo Notre Dame Academy in the Division I regional final. She finished her career with 2,833 points, passing Ohio legends Katie Smith and Semeka Randall on the state’s career scoring list in recent weeks.
Randall is one of five players to win Ms. Basketball twice, joining Garfield Heights Trinity’s Vonda Ward (1990-91), Mason’s Michelle Munoz (2000-01) and McKinley’s Ameryst Alston (2011-12).
Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s LeBron James is the only player to win Ohio’s Mr. Basketball three times.
“She’s the most physically dominant player I’ve ever seen at the high school level,” said Jackson coach Anthony Butch, who went 1-8 against Bell despite having Big Ten Freshman of the Year Taylor Mikesell of Maryland for seven of those games. “We couldn’t defend her with one player. Immediately, your game plan shifts when you’re playing against her because you have to keep two girls on her at all times.”
Teams were taking that approach long before she made it to high school. After moving from Alliance to Canton before eighth grade, she suited up for Lehman Middle School, where she caught Davis' eye.
“The first time I saw her play, I knew she was going to be something special,” Davis said. “She was just heads and tails above everybody at Lehman. They did the same things in eighth grade that they do now. They double- and triple-teamed her and tried to make other kids beat them.”
Bell made a seamless tradition to the varsity level, averaging 21.0 points and 9.8 rebounds as a freshman to earn first team All-Ohio honors. She got better each season, improving her skills as a passer and a defender while still scoring at will. She finished her career with 105 double-figure scoring games and set 35 school records, including career rebounds (960) and career steals (437).
“She became more versatile as she grew and matured as a player," said Hoover coach Abbey Allerding, who also went 1-8 against Bell's Bulldogs. "She presents a lot of problems on the court with her height and athleticism and because she can play inside and out. That makes her difficult to face. She shoots the ball well, but she also has such great touch around the rim as well. She rebounds. She runs the floor. She does a lot of different things.
"Obviously, I think she's a great player."
Flanked by a pair of Division I recruits in sophomore guards Nakayah Terrell and Kyla Foster, Bell led the Bulldogs to a 21-1 record during the regular season. Her scoring dipped from last season by about six points a game, in large part because she often looked to create plays for her talented teammates. While that may have cost her a chance to reach 3,000 career points — something only one Ohioan in history, Beaver Eastern's Marlene Stollings (3,514) has ever done — it made the Bulldogs more balanced, and more dangerous.
And when the Bulldogs needed her to score in bunches, she could do that, too. She had maybe her finest game of the season in the overtime loss to GlenOak on Jan. 12, scoring 39 points with nine rebounds, five steals and five blocks, including one on a game-winning 3-point attempt at the end of regulation.
She had 25 points to help the Bulldogs avenge last year's district championship game loss to Wadsworth, pulling away for a 54-32 victory that was essentially over at halftime.
She laughed off chants of "Overrated!" from the Avon Lake student section in the regional semifinals, scoring 20 points in the first half alone of a 60-33 victory.
And in a defensive-minded regional final loss to Notre Dame Academy, Bell scored 17 of McKinley's 38 points to go with five blocks, including two in the final 90 seconds.
"I've just been replaying that game in my head," Bell said. "Asking what I could have done better? What could I have changed?
"Our main focus was on winning a state championship."
Her high school career may not have finished in Columbus, but her college career will continue there.
Big Ten, beware.
"It was a journey and it was fun," she said of the past four seasons at McKinley. "I'm sure I'll come back 10, 12, 13 years later and say, 'Dang, I really set the gold standard for other kids to beat.' Maybe someday they will."
She laughed, then added, "Maybe not too soon, though. Leave it up a little bit longer."
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