When Kel’el Ware transferred to Indiana men’s basketball from Oregon, his biggest drawback wasn’t anything in his skill set.
It was his intangibles. Reports questioned things like his toughness, his effort, and his work ethic. IU head coach Mike Woodson thought he could coach Ware up and get his career back on track, but knew it required complete buy-in from the sophomore.
The 7-foot center has enjoyed a good season, overall, for the Hoosiers. He’s looked like an All-Big Ten player on occasion. But through the first three months of the season, Ware’s efforts to dispel those criticisms have been inconsistent. He’s handled physical opposition well at some times, but struggled against it in other moments.
But after a two-game absence with an ankle injury, he returned to action against Iowa, and made his strongest statement yet about his toughness. He laid his body on the line for his team on Tuesday, and his grit and effort led IU to a 74-68 win at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
“We needed him back in the worst way. Games like this, man, it’s huge for our ball club,” IU head coach Mike Woodson said after the game. “We were missing his length and ability to block shots. We just didn’t have it. It was nice having him back.”
Ware shot 8 for 10 for a team-high 23 points, and he also led IU with 10 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season. On the other end, the sophomore swatted three blocks — this was his seventh multi-block game out of his last eight.
But this performance was unlike any other he’s put on this year.
As Woodson underscored, IU badly needed him on Tuesday. Leading scorer Malik Reneau went down with an apparent injury less than three minutes into the game, and he didn’t return. The forward has been IU’s most consistent source of offense this year, to the point that other teams game-planned to limit him and sent double-teams and heavy pressure his way.
The Hoosiers were able to adjust without Reneau, particularly in the first half, largely thanks to Ware. Other players like Anthony Leal and Anthony Walker helped with that as well, but Ware’s length and awareness on both ends made a huge impact.
And the center did all of that while fighting through his own ailments.
“He’s obviously super talented, super skilled,” freshman guard Gabe Cupps said. “A lot of people’s knock on him is that he’s not tough. And I think he shows it in spurts, but once he can be consistent in that — and he showed that tonight — he’s an unstoppable player.”
Ware didn’t show any visible signs of lingering issue from the right ankle injury that kept him out against Wisconsin and Illinois, but after being unable to play in Champaign just three days earlier, it likely didn’t feel 100 percent.
But then, a new problem arose.
IU gave up a 17-point lead and trailed Iowa by three points with less than eight minutes remaining. And then, with 7:40 to play, Ware threw down a thunderous one-handed dunk over Hawkeyes standout freshman Owen Freeman and drew a foul. The type of play that normally elicits big reactions on the court and bigger reactions in the stands; the sort of moment that can firmly shift momentum in games.
But this was different. Ware isn’t typically one to show a lot of outward emotion during games, and he didn’t on that play. But that wasn’t because of the magnitude of the play. He landed awkwardly, winced, and started limping around, showing clear discomfort in his left leg.
The Hoosiers had already lost Reneau, so they especially couldn’t afford to lose Ware. If he was able to continue, they needed him to push on.
The sophomore played on, but didn’t appear comfortable. He came up limp again a few moments later, and looked to be fighting off pain.
But he never checked out of the game after that moment. Ware played 35 minutes Tuesday, with 18 in the second half, including the final 10:37 of the game. He rarely looked completely right after tweaking his left foot or leg, but it didn’t matter. On this night, Ware was driven to get his team over the line. He made winning plays down the stretch.
The Hoosiers badly needed to win this game, and they needed their big man to get them there. While battling through injuries both old and new, Ware remained the best player on the court.
It was one of the toughest individual performances by an IU player all year, and it came from the one whose mettle has been questioned more than any other.
“The last couple of games, whenever he was out, it really took a toll on him, mentally, emotionally. Obviously physically he was out. But he loves us as teammates and he wants to win more than anything,” Leal said. “So it was good to see him show some emotion and fight through some nicks and bruises and whatnot. But especially with Malik going down, he stepped up big time for us.”
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