(AP photo of Iowa’s Jake Kelly by Charlie Neibergall)
IOWA CITY — With his head bandaged like that of a fife player marching across a battlefield, Jake Kelly knifed for a lay-in with four seconds left in his team’s basketball game Saturday.
With the tape circling his head, the Iowa sophomore guard looked like the proper symbol of the Hawkeyes, a ragtag unit with their best big man (Cyrus Tate) and their point guard (Jeff Peterson) both injured and unavailable for duty.
Kelly’s score was also symbolic of Iowa’s day before a lively crowd of 14,665 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The basket pared No. 20 Purdue’s lead to two points, but wasn’t quite enough.
The Boilermakers left with a 49-45 win in a game as aesthetically ugly as its score, but one that certainly wasn’t lacking for ferocity.
It was a defensive tour de force for both squads, one that kept the fans energized despite Iowa’s baskets being few, and so hard to come by.
Kelly typified his team’s effort, not its result. He had to leave the court late in the game when he and Purdue’s Chris Kramer inadvertently butted heads. Iowa’s cut man, John Streif, worked on Kelly to clot the bleeding above his left eye that would later require three stitches.
The player returned and scored the last of his 12 points in the second-half and game-high 19 overall. But again, it wasn’t quite enough. Which is the story of Iowa’s 3-10 Big Ten season.
“If,” Kelly said, “no one would have gotten hurt all year — that’s pretty outrageous to say, but I think it would have been a totally different season.”
You play with what you’ve got. Iowa Coach Todd Lickliter stitched together a 7-player rotation Saturday, got a very productive season-high 32 minutes of 6-foot-7 forward Jarryd Cole in the middle, and had non-point guard Kelly share time at that spot with Jermain Davis in Peterson’s absence.
Throw in a fife and a couple of drums, and you had the portrait of Iowa’s squad.
But Kelly and Cole combined for 32 of Iowa’s 45 points in an offense that wasn’t really an offense. That isn’t intended as an insult, just a reflection about things not being entirely structured when Kelly was at the point.
“I didn’t know any of the plays,” Kelly said, “so we just ran high ball-screen all game.
“We weren’t running like quote-unquote sets, but we knew what we were doing. It wasn’t like we were just going out there and hooping. I don’t think it was like schoolyard ball. Just maybe a little organized than we’re used to playing.”
No, the ball definitely wasn’t the schoolyard variety. You don’t see defense like that from two teams in any driveway or playground, let alone the vast majority of most Division I gyms.
Purdue had to match Iowa’s defense with excellent lockdown of its own to get out of town with its 19th win.
But Kelly kept the Hawkeyes’ fire stoked, even putting them ahead with 6:54 left on one of his several cuts to the basket before he got cut himself.
Forty-five minutes after the game, Kelly had gauze on his sliced eyebrow that looked as gruesome as the game itself. But he didn’t sound like a wounded warrior.
“We had a packed house today,” he said. “We had so many fans supporting us. We’re not going to just give up and not put on a show for the fans. We’re going to work hard every days and we’re going to earn our scholarships.”
Purdue Coach Matt Painter, after collecting his 100th career win, called Kelly “the best player on the court.”
However, the sophomore player and Iowa’s head coach still ended up with their 23rd Big Ten loss in 31 games.
Last year, Lickliter needed more players. A lot of them. This year, he needs more players. A few, anyway. Especially those with size and those who can, as the expression goes, can create their own shots.
The “playing hard” thing and the “buying into the system” deal, those don’t seem to be issues. The Hawkeyes had all sorts of reasons to phone in this game, and instead played harder. Which should have come as no surprise to regular observers of the squad.
The losing wears on everyone, from the head coach to the fan in Row 35. But if nothing else, the right attitude seems to be in place for future success if the talent becomes adequate enough to accompany it.
Kelly certainly seems like a primary piece of the plan for the next two years, if he can stay in one piece. He spent his Saturday night icing the cut eye and a sore hip.
“It’s a hip pointer,” he said. “I fall on it. I’m pretty skinny, so I don’t have much meat there.”
That’s his team, too. Too thin.
Round up some beef on the recruiting trail, Coach Lick. The fans are getting hungry, and hungry people eventually get impatient.