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Basketball star puts small Nova Scotia community in the limelight

Saint Mary's University basketball player Justine Colley during practice in Halifax,, NS, January 23, 2014. Colley recently set the university record for leading scorer.

Paul Darrow

Not a lot of good news comes out of East Preston, N.S., a predominantly black community across the harbour from the Halifax peninsula.

But a 22-year-old Saint Mary's University Huskies basketball player, Justine Colley, is helping to change that.

The five-foot-nine, fifth-year guard is now the all-time Canadian Interuniversity Sport women's basketball scoring leader, recently topping the record of 2,171 career points (held since 2008 by former Laurentian University player Cassandra Carpenter).

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No matter where she is playing – Paris, Prague or Sydney, Cape Breton – Colley insists on being identified as being born and raised in East Preston. And she's quite proud of answering the inevitable "Where?"

"Literally, it is a community that raises the child. You know everybody," she says, adding, however, all you would ever read in the newspaper are reports of breaking and entering and acts of random violence.

"That's all we are known for. That's the only limelight East Preston gets. There are a ton of positives that come out of East Preston," she says. "It's really positive and really honouring to be one of the positive stories that people get to hear about."

Colley is a homebody who still looks up into the stands before a game for her parents, Kim and Eldon. Her mother, who works in the registrar's office at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, and her dad didn't grow up with much.

But Colley, the youngest of five siblings, says her parents instilled in their kids a love of sports, especially basketball, and discipline about homework and excelling at school. They made sure, too, she was enrolled in basketball camps and went to tournaments. Colley was playing the game by the time she could walk.

"Daycare teachers [would tell] my mom and dad that when I couldn't reach the toy box to pull down the basketball I was tugging at their leg trying to get it …," she says with a laugh.

She's always been good at the sport, usually playing up an age group. She graduated to provincial teams and, when she was 17, started playing on the national team. Last summer, she toured Europe with it.

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Her high-school years were spent at the private Halifax Grammar School, where she had won an academic scholarship.

Scott Munro, SMU women's basketball head coach for six years, recruited Colley, and it wasn't easy. He says by Grade 12, Colley was "probably the most heavily recruited player in the country.

If not, she was one of the top three or four most-recruited athletes in the country.

"We were in the mix with almost every school in Canada and lots in the States," he recalls, noting it took him from September to mid-May to seal the deal. He knew he had a shot when he heard at Christmas she was not going to the United States.

In fact, Colley says, she was turned off by stories she had heard from other players who had gone to American schools, only to return home. "It's such a business down there. They are very cutthroat. If you get injured, you are gone, and you can't really play with that when you're trying to get a degree … So I felt like the best for me was to stay in Canada," she says.

Munro sold her on the advantages of being the local athlete – lots of media exposure and good positioning for a future career in the city where you live. He also told her it was a chance to create an identity for SMU's women's basketball and "put them on the map nationally."

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It all worked. The fifth-year finance student – who may try to play professionally in Europe next year, but whose dream is to eventually coach – is a media darling. SMU is ranked second in the country, after taking the bronze medal at the 2013 nationals, its best result ever. Her team (13-0) has not lost a game this season, the only undefeated team in the CIS heading into a home game Tuesday against Acadia.

What makes her so good?

Both she and her coach say it's her competitive spirit. Nice in person, but not so nice on the court, Colley will do whatever it takes – within the rules – to win.

The smallest, by far, among the Canadian national team players, Munro says she plays "a lot bigger than she is. She is one of the most competitively driven people I have ever coached."

Adds Colley: "I just don't like coming away from the gym knowing that we lost the game and there was something more I could have done."

She wasn't even aware she was close to the CIS career scoring record until a few people mentioned it to her at the start of the season.

"It's eventually going to be a really proud moment in my life," she says. "But I have bigger goals in mind for me right now, and that's basically getting into nationals and winning nationals."

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