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College basketball: Anthony Kelley cracks starting lineup at UIC

Former AurorCentral star Anthony Kelley made his 10th consecutive start for UIC Flames Wednesday night against UW-Milwaukee. | Phocourtesy UIC

Former Aurora Central star Anthony Kelley made his 10th consecutive start for the UIC Flames Wednesday night against UW-Milwaukee. | Photo courtesy of UIC

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Updated: March 22, 2013 10:38AM



Quit, quite obviously, is not in Illinois-Chicago senior Anthony Kelley’s vocabulary.

“That was definitely a tough pill to swallow,” the former Aurora Central standout said, remembering when Flames coach Howard Moore told him his basketball scholarship would not be renewed following his sophomore season.

A Jimmy Collins recruit who had averaged six minutes in the 21 games he played as a freshman, Kelley averaged just three minutes in 14 games during Moore’s first season. He was, the coach said, welcome to continue with the program as a walk-on.

“I was sitting there thinking I didn’t play much but my academics were on point, I did all the right things, I always showed up on time and did all the things you think they would expect,” said Kelley, who saw a lot of change with the new regime.

“It gave me the biggest chip on my shoulder I’ve ever had. I could go somewhere else and start over new, or I could try to prove a point and show these guys I could play.”

The kinesiology major had a dilemma. He was doing well in school. He loved it and the people there. It was close to home. And, he was having the time of his life living in the city.

“I just told myself, ‘You’re at a crossroads,’” Kelley said. “I’m a person that likes to finish what they start and I came here to play basketball at UIC and I’ll be damned if I don’t do it.”

His parents, dad Avis and mom Anita, and many of his friends weren’t so sure.

“Did (mom and dad) like the decision at first? I don’t think so, because they were kind of salty at what happened, but they supported me,” he said.

Kelley attacked offseason workouts with a vengeance. When Moore took his team southeast of Soldier Field to start preseason workouts with a daily series of runs up the 33-foot high sledding hill the Chicago Park District had built as part of the facility’s renovation back in 2001, the 6-foot-6 forward was ready.

“(Kelley) was really hyped about getting on the floor,” said Moore, a Chicago native who left Bo Ryan’s staff at Wisconsin to come home and take the job. “I really thought he was on pace to make strides after being up and down that first year.”

Then, he had another setback.

“The second to last day (of the workouts) I was running real well. I don’t know what happened. I slipped and felt a pop in my (left) hamstring and I fell but got up and finished it, limping up the hill,” Kelley said.

“Coach was sitting up there and said, ‘You don’t have to do this,’ and I said, ‘Yes I do. I’m finishing what I started,’ still with that mindset of proving something to him, that I realized I know I can play, that I’m not that kid.”

He was no quitter, but he was limited to the final five games of the season, when he averaged just 3.4 minutes of playing time and probably could have redshirted.

“After missing so much basketball, he had a lot of rust,” said Moore, “but he really wanted to help that team and finish on a positive note. That’s who he is.”

Undaunted, the player who had averaged 20 points his senior year in high school to make The Beacon-News All-Area team but scored just 22 points in his first three college seasons combined went back to work.

He was elected Student Athlete Advisory Committee president but at basketball games, he still sat.

It was hard to argue with Moore’s rotation. The Flames opened with eight straight wins. Then, however, they dropped six of seven. Kelley saw action in four.

“Everybody had said, ‘You’re gonna get a chance to help us this year, you’re gonna be a part of it,’ and halfway through the season, I wasn’t really getting the look, playing time or opportunities I thought I deserved,” Kelley said.

Still, he pushed on.

“I could sit there and pout or keep trying to prove something, and that’s what I did every day in practice, going hard on scout team and trying to push those guys,” said Kelley.

Moore, who saw Kelley play in high school and tried to get him to walk on at Madison, took note and arrived at a decision after the team dropped a 53-47 decision at Wisconsin–Green Bay.

“(Kelley) had been practicing really well and we needed a spark, we were going through a lull and seemed to have a lack of energy,” said the coach, who let Kelley know two days before the Jan. 16 game at Loyola he would be starting. “I thought it made sense to call on a senior who had been working hard and wanted to make an impact.”

Kelley didn’t tell anyone.

“(Moore) told me not to look at it as pressure but as an opportunity, that’s a big word that’s been thrown around since I’ve been here, opportunity,” Kelley said. “Coach Collins used to say it, too, ‘Go out there and do what you do.’”

Needless to say, Kelley was jacked. His only other college start had come in his very first game, when he got to play 21 minutes.

What was the first thing he did?

“The adrenaline was through the roof. In the first five minutes, I missed a layup,” he said sheepishly. “But I dove for a loose ball and the coach said (later) that set the tone for how we played that game.”

Apparently.

“His biggest thing was urgency on the court,” Moore said. “He missed a layup but didn’t hang his head and jog down the court. He dove after the ball like his life depended on it.”

The pundits had their fun, too.

“Somebody tweeted, ‘It’s been three years, two months and 60-something games since Kelley had his last start, first game freshman year.’ I thought it was pretty funny,” said Kelley.

He’s still laughing. And still starting.

Two games later Kelley had a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) in a win at home against Wisconsin–Milwaukee. He’s averaging just 3.4 points and 3.5 rebounds but was scheduled to start his 10th straight game Wednesday night when the 16-7 Flames played their final conference game at UW-Milwaukee as The Beacon-News went to press.

“I went from playing virtually zero minutes to averaging almost 18. I’m really trying to contribute,” Kelley said. “I’m making up for lost time. I’ve been here for four years and I haven’t done what I wanted to do.”

The Flames won 23 games combined in Kelley’s first three seasons. He was hoping they could match that total this season. With three regular season games and the Horizon League Tournament remaining it’s a longshot, but possible.

Stranger things have happened. Just ask Anthony Kelley.



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