Anthony Kelley is still working on writing a happy ending to his basketball career at the Illinois-Chicago.
Much of the 6-foot-6 guard’s four years with the Flames was marked by frustration. The Aurora Central Catholic grad spent most of it watching the action from the bench. But about halfway through his senior season, he finally worked his way into the starting lineup.
“Everything finally came to fruition at the end,” he said in a phone interview this week. “I couldn’t ask for a better ending to my last year.”
Well, except for maybe a better ending to his final Horizon League game. The Flames (17-15) lost to Wisconsin-Green Bay (18-14) in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament, 64-63, when Sultan Muhammad hit a 3-pointer for the Phoenix with less than two seconds left in the game.
“You don’t expect to go out like that,” Kelley said. “It felt like that ball was in the air for minutes.”
Kelley started the game and made the only two shots he took, a pair of 3-pointers. He was watching from the bench when Muhammad hit his buzzer beater.
“How else do you respond to that but just drop your head?” he asked. “It’s tough to swallow, especially after four years.”
The winner of the Horizon League tournament receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Division I basketball tournament. Wisconsin-Green Bay fell in the semifinals to Valparaiso (26-7) on a last-second 3-pointer and the Crusaders went on to win the championship game.
“We’ve still got an opportunity to get some postseason play,” Kelley noted.
That opportunity presented itself Tuesday when the Flames accepted an invitation to participate in the Collegeinsider.com Tournament. UIC will host a first-round game Wednesday against an opponent to be determined.
Any victory would be the first post-season win in UIC history. The Flames are 0-4 all-time in the NCAA and NIT tournaments. Their last postseason appearance was 2004, five years before Kelley arrived on campus.
“I had a couple other offers,” Kelley recalled. “It came down to UIC just being the right choice for me. It was reasonably close to home … and it was in Chicago. I’ve always liked Chicago since I was young.”
Kelley also was recruited by North Dakota State during his outstanding prep career at ACC. With Kelley averaging 20 points a game, the Chargers went 24-4 his senior year and won the Suburban Catholic Conference championship. Kelley was named the league MVP.
This season started with Kelley still riding the bench, but he continued to work hard. He was often the last player in the gym after practice, working on his shooting. It was on one such occasion that UIC coach Howard Moore pulled him aside to tell him he was rewarding his dedication with a start against conference rival Loyola.
“It was a great feeling,” Kelley said. “Up until that point, I really felt like I hadn’t had an opportunity … to show what I could do.”
Kelley started 12 of the 18 games he’s appeared in this season, averaging 3.9 points and 3.4 rebounds a game.
Dennis D. Jacobs writes the On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. To suggest local college athletes deserving recognition, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.