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Toughness. Energy. Emotion. Kel’el Ware retuned for Indiana basketball doing everything and more in its win: ‘We needed him back in the worst way’



Indiana basketball Kel'el Ware
Kel'el Ware was instrumental in the 74-68 win for Indiana basketball over Iowa on Tuesday -- showing toughness, energy and emotion. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

‘He’s too soft’. ‘He doesn’t play with a high motor’. ‘He’s lazy’. These were the storylines surrounding Indiana basketball center Kel’el Ware this offseason — and even as recent as last week. Despite a very impactful season up to this point, an ankle injury that caused him to miss two games seemed to put doubt in IU fans’ minds about what he brings to this team moving forward.

On Tuesday night in Indiana’s 74-68 win over Iowa, he silenced his critics in a big way.

Ware returned after nearly a two week absence and turned in his third 20-point and 10-rebound game of the season when Indiana needed it in the worst way.

Indiana needed every single bit of it to come out with a much needed win following a three-game skid.

“We needed him back in the worst way,” Indiana basketball head coach Mike Woodson said following the game. “Games like this, man, it’s huge for our ball club. He gets 23 (points) and 10 (rebounds) and three blocks. We were missing his length and ability to block shots. We just didn’t have it.”

Ware played 35 minutes in his return, scoring 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting and had 10 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and just one turnover.

While his performance was gutsy regardless, his production was heightened in numerous ways following the injury to Malik Reneau just over two minutes into the game. Then, Ware proceeded to play through pain nearly the entire second half, visibly grimacing and holding his leg in pain numerous time.

But, Ware fought through — because Indiana needed him and he wanted it even more.

“We’ve kind of coached him into playing better, playing with a little more energy,” Woodson said. “And I thought tonight was — he actually showed some emotion. I mean, one time — hadn’t seen that all pretty much all year with him, but it was kind of nice to see.”

That sort of emotion resonated with his teammates as well. But probably none more than a massive one-handed dunk at the 7:40 mark of the second half with Indiana down three points. He got fouled in the motion and would go on to make his free throw. It changed the energy level of the team and in the crowd.

“I mean, I liked it a lot,” Indiana freshman guard Gabe Cupps said of Ware’s emotion. “That’s the thing we need from him. He’s obviously super talented, super skilled. And 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.”

Trending: Indiana basketball head coach Mike Woodson uncertain of severity of injuries to Malik Reneau, Xavier Johnson

Ware went into this game matching up with leading candidate for Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten in Owen Freeman as well as leading scorer for Iowa in Ben Krikke. Everyone was talking about how talented that front court was, while question marks were still being discussed about Ware.

Ware outscored them 23-6 with that pair combining for just 3-of-12 from the field. They added just five rebounds as well.

While Ware’s three blocks were very noticeable on the court, he also led a defense that forced Iowa to shoot just 52.9 percent (9-of-17) on layups. Ware had stop rate of 44 percent.

Whether it was scoring, defending, rebounding or bringing energy — Ware did it all, and more.

“A lot of Coach Woodson screaming from the very beginning when I got him,” Woodson said. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just tried to push him, along with our coaching staff. Because the first two or three weeks with him was a nightmare in terms of his energy and his get-up-and-go.”

Ware is now averaging 14.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.7 rebounds per game this season. He’s shooting 55.9 percent from the field and 44 percent (11-of-25) from three. He has eight double-doubles and five 20+ point games. He has scored in double-figures in 15 of 18 games.

In Big Ten play alone he’s averaging 14.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 59.3 percent from the field.

He is clearly one of the most effective bigs in the Big Ten. He currently ranks third in field goal percentage, rebounds per game, defensive rebound percentage, fourth in player efficiency rating, fifth in blocks per game and seventh in offensive rating among other categories.

At the end of the day, Ware just wants to ‘win more than anything’. He showed that on Tuesday and throughout the majority of this season with his consistent play.

“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,” Indiana basketball senior guard Anthony Leal said postgame.  “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.”

SEE ALSO: ‘It’s really not that hard to stay ready if you do the right things’: Anthony Leal steps up in big win for Indiana basketball

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Alec Lasley is the owner of Hoosier Illustrated, a comprehensive site covering news, updates and recruiting for Indiana University athletics. Alec has covered Indiana for six years and is a credentialed media member. He has previously worked for both Rivals and 247Sports.