When Bella Murekatete, a 6-5 forward-center from Rwanda by way of Post Falls, signed her letter of intent to play for Kamie Etheridge at Washington State, she made history.  By Jackson Gardner



Murekatete  is believed to be the first Rwandan-born woman who will play basketball not just in the Pac-12, but the entire Division I level. Wearing her Rwandan heritage on her sleeve and with an undeterred faith in God’s plan, Murekatete came the U.S. at age of 14 and turned her dreams into a reality.

“The first thing they tell us is make sure everywhere you go you present one thing about our country -- even if it’s just saying I’m from Rwanda,” Murekatete said. “I want to represent, and represent well. We have our own traditions and I don’t want to forget them. So I am definitely representing wherever I go.”

Murekatete isn’t a household name for women’s basketball fans in the U.S. but in her native country – where basketball is a huge deal – she is associated with the future of Rwandan basketball.

Since 2015, the WSU commit has been a part of the Rwandan junior national team and has dominated the international circuit. She has been selected to the All-Star Five at FIBA’s Africa Championship tournament twice (2015, 2018). At the 2015 FIBA Africa Championship she averaged a mind-boggling 22 rebounds a game and even had a game where she brought in 37 rebounds against Tunisia

The day Murekatete signed her LOI with WSU she was up until 4 a.m. doing phone interviews with Rwandan media. Everyone back home wanted to hear from her.

For now, she is Rwanda's -- and the state of Idaho’s -- best-kept secret in or around the college hoops world. Murekatete isn’t just a dominating presence in the paint. With help from her head coach at Genesis Prep, Brandon Haas, and the staff of her AAU team, North Idaho Elite, Murekatete has diversified her game to fit the mold of a stretch-forward.

“She’s got guard skills, man. She’s legit,” Haas tells Cougfan.com. “So when she gets up to that level where she needs to bring the ball up the court, she can do that. You need someone to score inside, she has incredible post moves. She’s also one that when it comes to playing against someone that is taller or more skilled she is going to rise up to that challenge.”

Last season Murekatete averaged 20.6 points and 18.6 rebounds per game and earned first-team all-state recognition. Statistics for this season were not readily available at press time.

So how did a rising star from Africa end up in Post Falls, the old mill town of 27,574 between Coeur d'Alene and Spokane?

MUREKATETE CAME TO the U.S. on an F1 visa, a nonimmigrant visa specific for education. However, a school must have permission from the state to allow F1 visa students, which eliminates the vast majority across the nation. Genesis Prep had previous experience in taking F1 visas for student-athletes, first in hockey and then via a veritable basketball pipeline built by their boys' basketball coach, Marsell Colbert.

All-State post Bella Murekatete of Genesis Prep Academy in Post Falls (Photo: Barry Buer)

All it took for Genesis Prep to get on Murekatete's radar was a call from Colbert to his connections African basketball circles.

Ultimately, Murekatete had two options: one in New York and the other in Post Falls.  Befitting its name, Genesis Prep is a Christian school and that was a big draw for Murekatete and her family.

"Genesis Prep isn't just a school, it's a family," she tells CF.C. "Everybody cares about you so much ... they don't want to see you fail and they do whatever they can to see you be successful. I come from a Christian family and when my mom heard Genesis Prep was a Christian school she was like, 'You're definitely going there.'"

She hopes to develop an even bigger family when she enrolls at WSU this fall. And the decision was a godsend for the basketball program at Genesis Prep, a 1A school with a student enrollment of 305 spanning pre-K through 12. Haas, who was coaching the men’s JV team at the time, said he will never forget the day he first saw her play.

“It was just something you couldn’t miss. She was very raw and she couldn’t speak English,” Haas said. “So for her to try and communicate with her teammates was pretty fun to watch because it was a good group of girls working together.”

Truth be told, not many 14-year-olds are equipped with the tools to succeed in an environment where the expectations are high and the language barrier is even higher. But Murekatete managed to hit the mark, if not exceed it.

Though she has already accomplished so much on the international stage, her hooping journey has just begun. In the U.S., the scoring and rebounding is the easy part. Adapting to American culture has required an equal amount of work that she puts in on the court.

Murekatete said she is still learning and is better at speaking English with each day. But no matter what lies ahead for her, she intends to represent the Cougars and her country to the best of her ability.

Notable:

Genesis Prep advanced to the 1A/Division II quarterfinals of the state playoffs earlier this month, losing to Nez Perce. GP won two subsequent games in the consolation bracket to finish the year at 14-11. Last season, Genesis Prep played for the state championship. losing by two to Butte County.

Murekatete was one of three prep players to ink LOIs with WSU in November's early signing period. The others are Leah Mafua (5-10 guard, Wellington, New Zealand) and Grace Sarver (5-8 guard, West Seattle High). WSU has one remaining slot available for the April signing period.

Murekatete and Mafua will continue the decade-long tradition of major international representation on the WSU's women's basketball team.  The current roster features players from France, Australia, Israel, Portugal, Serbia and Bulgaria.

WSU's 2019 recruiting class at a glance

Signed in November: Murekatete; Leah Mafua (5-10 guard, Wellington, New Zealand); Grace Sarver (5-8 guard, West Seattle High)