By Tom Westerholm

FORT MYERS, FL–Alyza Winston has an impressive list of accomplishments to date in her basketball career. 

Winston, a Muskegon native, was a four-star recruit in high school, and she led the Big Reds to the state semifinals in 2019. She was a top recruit in her class. She was twice named to the Associated Press’s All-Michigan First Team. She claimed the first ring of her career this past Saturday, when Florida Gulf Coast University handled Liberty University with a 84-60 victory in the Atlantic Sun (ASUN) women’s basketball tournament.

This upcoming weekend, she will participate in the NCAA tournament for the second time when 12-seed FGCU takes on 5-seed Washington State.

But this season, Winston may have achieved her most important accomplishment to date. For the first time in her collegiate basketball career, the redshirt junior feels like she’s found a home. 

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” Winston said. “All my teammates have talked about how this is the best team they’ve ever been on, and these are people that have been in college for six years saying that.”

Photo courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast University Athletic Department

Winston’s winding NCAA journey to FGCU began in East Lansing, where she played at Michigan State for the first two-and-a-half seasons of her collegiate career. Part of the reason she chose the Spartans was to remain close to her family, who still reside in Muskegon. Winston started 16 games as a sophomore and 10 as a junior, but midway through the Spartans’ season, she opted to enter the transfer portal and join Mississippi State. 

Because Winston transferred midway through the season, she couldn’t suit up for the Bulldogs in 2022. Then, in the offseason, interim coach Doug Novak was let go and replaced by Sam Purcell. 

For Winston, the departure of the coach who recruited her was a sign she needed to keep moving as well. 

“It definitely was a lot, and it was stressful,” she said. “But it made me realize that this may not be my opportunity, this might not be the best situation for me, and that’s fine. Even though I only got two months here, I am appreciative of the time I had here, but I don’t think I want to stay considering that the coach that recruited me wasn’t there any more.”

A speedy guard with 3-point range and – as ESPN once put it – “a touch of swagger,” Winston had a lot of options in the portal. But a conversation with WNBA champion Kierstan Bell helped convince Winston that FGCU would be a great fit, both for her present and future goals. Head coach Karl Smesko’s coaching philosophy intrigued her and after her first of two seasons with the Eagles, Winston is thrilled with her decision.

Photo courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast University Athletic Department

“It’s not just, ‘Do this and I’m not going to tell you why,’” Winston said, describing Smesko’s coaching style. “It’s ‘This is how I want it done and this is why.’ I appreciate and respect that from him, because coaches normally are like, ‘Hey I want you to do this.’ But he really breaks it down for you and gets you to see the game from a completely different element. 

“I really love it. I love his coaching style and everything about it.”

FGCU’s hyper-efficient style of play has made a big impact on Winston – Smesko emphasizes catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and advantage layups, shying away from mid-range jumpers or off-the-dribble triples.

“I would say that’s the biggest difference I see,” Winston said. “Under every coach I’ve been under my whole life, that’s probably the biggest thing, and that makes a big difference.”

But more than the style of play, Winston appreciates the FGCU culture. 

“This is exactly what I was hoping to see,” she said. “I came to Florida Gulf Coast to win, and I got a championship, I got my first ring ever and along with that, I got the most peaceful and loving team that I’ve been on in my entire life. There’s no drama, we genuinely love each other, and I’m learning. … 

“We’re all very unselfish players and we all understand and buy in to what our coach teaches us and what our coach wants from us, and I think that’s why we’ve been so successful all year, because we’re all on the same page.”

Photo is courtesy of the Florida Gulf Coast University Athletic Department

Winston misses her family, and she’s grateful to Muskegon for being a place they love to be. But her decision a little over a year ago to consider her own career – and her family’s unwavering support for that decision – has paid off enormously. 

“They helped me to be able to have the courage to just put yourself first,” Winston said. “‘If you think this is going to be the best situation for you, you should take that opportunity. Don’t let us control whether you stay close to home or not.’”

Now, Winston is back in the NCAA tournament playing alongside teammates with whom she genuinely enjoys practicing every morning. After a couple of long years, she called the experience “refreshing.”

“I can see how powerful it is when a team is really jelled together,” Winston said. “This is my first time really seeing it in my life, but [I’m] actually seeing a team that is all in on the prize, and I’m excited to see what we can do in this tournament, because obviously I believe in us.”

Photo courtesy of Florida Gulf Coast University Athletic Department