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From Rwanda to Post Falls and the Pac-12: Bella Murekatete continues to grow at Washington State

Jan. 21, 2021 Updated Thu., Jan. 21, 2021 at 10:10 p.m.

Washington State sophomore center Bella Murekatete is averaging 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots while starting all 10 games for the much-improved Cougars this season.  (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)
Washington State sophomore center Bella Murekatete is averaging 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots while starting all 10 games for the much-improved Cougars this season. (Courtesy of WSU Athletics)

Not much has changed about Bella Murekatete in her circuitous road to the Pac-12.

Her smile is as wide as it was in her native Rwanda, a country she left in 2015 for a contrasting North Idaho lifestyle.

She’s still the high-energy post player at Washington State, as she was as the often triple-teamed force at little Genesis Prep Academy in Post Falls.

Murekatete’s game has markedly developed under third-year coach Kamie Ethridge, whose Cougars (7-3, 5-3 Pac-12) recently cracked the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in program history.

The 6-foot-5 sophomore is thinner, quicker, more polished around the basket and still understanding the nuances of a sport she dominated at much lesser levels most of her young life.

But Murekatete, whose once-thick Rwandan accent has faded over the years, is the same ball of vitality she’s always been.

“Her personality is to come and bust through the door,” said Ethridge, whose team travels to 13th-ranked Oregon on Friday. “She’s excitable, sometimes tries to do too much.”

“If you’re around her for 10 minutes, you’ll know if she is upset or unhappy,” said Brandon Haas, her high school coach. “She is funny.”

“I’m a happy person. I want to make everyone laugh,” said Murekatete, who averages 10.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.

It’s mostly fun and uplifting. Sometimes it comes at a price.

Genesis Prep was putting the finishing touches on a double-digit victory against North Star League rival Lakeside in Plummer in 2018 when Murekatete noticed a “Jinx the Jaguars” sign as she watched from the final minutes from the bench.

Murekatete stood up as the game was being played, walked to the paper sign hanging on a nearby wall and tore it down.

The Jaguars were issued a technical foul. The act ultimately cost Murekatete – a three-time All-State selection and the unequivocally the small classification’s best player – a spot on the All-North Star League team.

“I thought, ‘Hey, there’s no point for that sign to be there,’ ” Murekatete said. “But I was 17 and being immature.

In a game against USC as last season, Murekatete – a social media buff with friends from all around the Pac-12 – scored inside on fellow freshman post Angel Jackson and pushed her.

Refs didn’t see the shove, but an angry Ethridge did.

“She tells me, ‘No, it’s OK, we’re friends’ ” Ethridge said. “But that’s Bella. Have a tiny bit of fun, take it a step too far, and there you go.

“But that’s also what I like about her. You don’t need robots or people who are too serious.”

Things were serious enough in Rwanda, a country where roughly 39% of people live below the poverty line and history is marred in genocide.

Murekatete lived a healthy and happy life in her home country – she is widely believed to be the first Rwandan-born woman to play Division I basketball – but wanted more educational and athletic opportunities.

Genesis Prep was one of the rare American schools to take in a student on U.S. F1 nonimmigrant visa, which also requires a state’s approval for athletic eligibility.

The small Christian school with a high school enrollment of fewer than 100 already had a history of taking in foreign students and Murekatete felt fortunate for the opportunity.

She was a major factor all four years, leading the Jaguars to the 1A Division II State title game as a junior, pouring in 28 points and 30 rebounds in a losing effort.

“I was pretty much guarded by the whole team every game,” she said.

Murekatete was one of the state’s best players but was playing in the state’s smallest division.

The attention that came with her size and skill at the lowest level came with its share of pressure.

“Sometimes high school is very hard for a 6-5 player,” Ethridge said. “You never get to play 1-on-1, you’re always triple-teamed. You’re always told to stick by the basket.”

Most of Murekatete’s recruiting came on the AAU circuit on a competitive North Idaho Elite team, but Division I recruiters would occasionally show up the school on the campus of megachurch Real Life Ministries to watch a game.

Haas, who starred at Post Falls High School and played at North Idaho College, wasn’t unaware of the fact that he inherited a potential blue-chip recruit.

“You only get kids like that once in a lifetime in your program, or never,” Haas said. “She had all the confidence in the world.

“She first had learned the (English) language, a different style of play and she worked her tail off to get to that point. She earned it.”

The level of basketball didn’t mean much to Murekatete during time at Genesis Prep. The relationships did.

“At the end of the day, basketball is basketball,” she said. “I’m a team player. The (attention) didn’t get to my head much.”

Murekatete, who had a host family for four years, returned to Post Falls last offseason and remains close with her North Idaho friends.

Now she is set on goals that include helping Washington State reach its first NCAA Tournament in 30 years, positioning herself for a potential professional career and returning to Rwanda to lead the nation to new basketball heights.

Murekatete led Rwanda’s national team to a fourth-place finish at the U18 Women’s Africa championships in 2018.

“She can be an impact athlete for her home country,” Ethridge said.

“(Playing in the Pac-12) definitely makes me better,” Murekatete said. You get to play against the best players in the nation.”

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