March 20, 2019
For weeks, Ines Nezerwa left her two suitcases packed full of clothes and stored under the bed of her Ames apartment. Nezerwa had moved to Ames and started working out with the Iowa State women’s basketball team last summer while she waited to hear from the NCAA. The 25-year-old from Burundi had come to Iowa State to try to continue her basketball career. She waited for weeks to see what the NCAA would say.
Nezerwa expected the worst.
“I kept my stuff in my suitcases just because I was like, there is no point in it if the NCAA would come and say, ‘You are not eligible,’ and Iowa State would be like, ‘We are sorry, but you can’t stay,’” Nezerwa said. “I was like, I’m just going to be ready at any time.”
Historic Midwest flooding devastates Nebraska, Iowa
The negative news Nezerwa was waiting for never came. After weeks of waiting and wondering what was next, the NCAA cleared Nezerwa. And it’s not only been good news for Nezerwa, who has gotten to continue her basketball career and her education at Iowa State — it was also great news for the Cyclones women’s basketball team.
Nezerwa has provided a big boost off the bench for Iowa State this season and is one of the reasons the Cyclones are hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament this week.
“She’s an amazing person and she’s added so much to our team,” said Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly.

'That time was very stressful'
Fennelly can only imagine the offers that would have been pouring in for Nezerwa if she was a typical recruit. But she wasn’t.
She had a unique backstory and a ton of questions surrounding her future. There was little doubt that Nezerwa could play, though.
Nezerwa, who is listed at 6-foot-3, spent the 2017-18 season at Jacksonville College in Jacksonville Texas. She averaged 18 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, while shooting 51.7 percent from the floor. The success attracted the attention of a ton of colleges.
“The list would have been really long and it would have been a hard, hard thing to navigate to get her here,” Fennelly said.
The problem is, most schools ended up being scared off by Nezerwa’s journey. Her story began growing up in Nyakabiga, Burundi, before moving to Rwanda where she spent two years attending a university.
Nezerwa didn’t even start playing basketball until high school, but she caught on quickly and used her length to maneuver well around opponents and the basket. Nezerwa caught on so quickly it caught the attention of the coaching staff at Jacksonville. They were urged to look at her highlights from her friend Florence Sofia, a guard on the team.
At first, Jacksonville was the only school really willing to bring in Nezerwa. West Virginia, Miami, Kansas State and Louisiana Tech were among the long list of suitors that liked what they saw from Nezerwa and were interested in possibly extending her a scholarship. But they were all deterred by Nezerwa’s past, worried that she might not be cleared by the NCAA.
“That time was very stressful,” Nezerwa said. “That’s why a lot of schools withdrew. (They said), ‘We’re not sure if we’re going to get you.”
Iowa State assistant coach Latoja Schaben said there were questions about Nezerwa’s amateurism. Schaben said the NCAA wanted to make sure Nezerwa hadn’t played any professional basketball while she was in Africa. And since she had spent two years at the university there, there were questions about when her college eligibility had started. Making matters more difficult was President Trump’s new travel ban which could impact Nezerwa’s passport.
It was just too much for most schools, who had to go through the NCAA to make sure she would even be eligible. One school even lined up a visit with Nezerwa but backed out at the last minute. When she graduated from Jacksonville last May, Nezerwa still didn’t have another school lined up. So, she moved in with her aunt in New York and she waited and hoped another opportunity would come. If an offer didn’t come or the NCAA didn’t clear Nezerwa, she would have to move home.
“I was kind of optimistic about it,” Nezerwa said. “So, I’m like, I’m just going to keep believing that good things are going to happen.”
But with schools bailing left and right and no one calling, it wasn’t easy.
"I wasn't even sure I was going to play"
Nezerwa was at her aunt’s apartment in New York City around the end of May when she got a text from Fennelly’s son, an assistant on the Iowa State staff.
“He said, ‘Who wouldn’t like to play in front of 10,000 fans,’” Nezerwa said. “I was like, this is very different from what I’m hearing.”
It really was. And even though Nezerwa’s eligibility had a ton of question marks around it, the Cyclones were willing to take a chance. Iowa State’s post play was a giant concern. The Cyclones weren’t sure if starter Meredith Burkhall, who had been hospitalized with a blood clot, would be cleared to play for the 2018-19 season. So, they needed help.
Billy Fennelly had heard about Nezerwa from new Iowa State point guard Alexa Middleton. He called up Nezerwa’s coaches at Jacksonville and they gave her rave reviews. But no one knew for sure if the NCAA would clear her.
“It was just that her story, her background was so unique,” Billy Fennelly said. “And mainly just getting the right information form all the different places she’s been is the first issue.”
The good news for Nezerwa was that Iowa State was willing to put in the work. All the other schools that had reached out to her weren’t. But the Cyclones needed the help, liked what they saw from Nezerwa and liked what they heard from her, as well. It was a risk they were willing to take.
Iowa State even brought Nezerwa in for a visit over the summer and offered her a scholarship, not knowing for sure what her future was and how the NCAA may rule. Iowa State’s compliance office went to work gathering as much information on her past as it could. The Cyclones, meanwhile, brought Nezerwa on campus on July 1 and had her start participating during summer workouts with the team.
“I can only promise what I know I can deliver or what we can deliver,” Bill Fennelly said. “But we promised that this is what we’ve done, this is the situation we’re in, this is where we are and it’s in someone else’s hands. But we feel really good about it.”
Nezerwa wasn’t as confident. That’s why she left her bags packed under her bed. She figured she’d eventually hear from the NCAA that she couldn’t play. If that bad news came, she thought she’d have to move back home.
“I wasn’t even sure I was going to play,” Nezerwa said.
Historic Midwest flooding devastates Nebraska, Iowa
'I'm really excited for the future'
Nezerwa finally did unpack those bags.
Right before one of Iowa State’s workouts during the summer, Bill Fennelly texted her out of the blue: The NCAA had ruled her eligible for the 2018-19 season. The first thing Nezerwa did after she read the message was grab her bags and started organizing her apartment.
“It’s been a long, long journey since being from Africa and coming here and getting cleared by the NCAA and being able to play right now,” Nezerwa said. “It’s very, very special for me.”
Nezerwa has made the most of it. She’s become one of Iowa State’s most important players off the bench, averaging 4.5 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.
“I’ve always told our players, when you’re a kid coming off the bench, you’ve got to come in and do your job,” Bill Fennelly said. “But, I also believe that when you have a great season, those people win you one game, two games, somehow, someway. Ines has done that already and I think she’s going to continue to do it.”
She’ll have her chance Saturday when three-seed Iowa State hosts 14-seed New Mexico State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Hilton Coliseum on Saturday. The Cyclones are hoping that’s not it, either. They’re trying to get Nezerwa, who’s listed as a senior, another year or even two of eligibility. They’re once again waiting to hear from the NCAA.
“We feel very good about what we sent in,” Bill Fennelly said. “We’ll see.”
Even if Nezerwa doesn’t get the good news she’s hoping for from the NCAA again, she’s happy with how things have gone. It’s already exceeded her expectations, just being on the team.
“I love it so far and I’m really excited for the future,” she said.
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