Anyone who knows Indian River’s head basketball coach, Pat Kelly, knows that he’s an intense guy — especially when his team takes the floor.
No matter whether his team wins or loses, Kelly is often exasperated after games. But following the Indians’ dogged performance in a 70-61 losing effort in their home-opener against the Smyrna Eagles, he nearly cracked a smile.
And why not? The Eagles are arguably one of the better teams in the Henlopen Conference and have two of the better scorers in the state. But Indian River played right with them, despite starting two freshmen and the fact that, with so many new players to this year’s team, they’re still gelling.
“Smyrna had a lot coming back, and I’d say that Smyrna is (the same caliber of team) with Cape Henlopen, Caesar Rodney, Sussex Tech and Sussex Central,” Kelly said. “They’re all talent teams, and Smyrna can play with any of them.”
So, in a game the Indians never led, all they could do was play through Eagle leads that stretched as large as 18 points, behind the sharp shooting of Kevin Johnson (20 points) and Darnell Cephas (25 points), for a chance to win the team’s first game of the season.
Indian River trailed Smyrna by 16 points going into halftime, partly due 15 first-half turnovers and ineffective shooting from the field (7-23). But they stormed back to cut the lead to three points in the second half behind sophomore guard Jamar Manuel’s 5-7 shooting in the third quarter.
Manuel led the Indians with six first-half points on 2-4 shooting from the floor and hit both of his free throws, but he then kicked it up a notch in the third quarter by hitting three straight three-pointers and took two more to the hoop for easy points in transition.
That, combined with Kelly’s halftime adjustments, fueled the Indians’ resurgence and nearly earned them a victory.
“We came out flat in the first half,” senior guard Drew Gibbons said, “but we’re new, young and inexperienced. We tried to keep it close going into the half, but they went up 16 points.”
“In the second half we played our hearts out,” he said.
“Jamar played like a senior. He took his time, stuck to his strengths and played really well,” Gibbons continued. “With time he’s going to be a great player.”
And after missing his first six shots from the field (all jumpers), Kelly moved the 6-foot, 4-inch transfer guard Gibbons down on the blocks in the second half to give Indian River a higher percentage shot and to give him some confidence — and it worked.
Gibbons went 1-2 from the paint, hit one of two free-throws on his missed field goal attempt and then made two of three three-pointers to finish with eight points.
“It gets to the point where, instead of shooting three-pointers, you have to get to the rim, get to the (free-throw) line and get into a rhythm of flow, and then you can step out and hit a three-pointer,” Kelly said of Gibbons’ second-half performance.
Indians big man Jeremy Purnell only had one shot in the first half but then surged to score 10 of his 11 points in the second half on 5-5 shooting. He electrified the crowd by finishing a Deshawn Godwin alley-oop with a thunderous two-hand dunk.
Purnell finished with a game-high 14 rebounds.
Freshman forward Montre Andrews saw limited time despite starting the game but put back two offensive rebounds for four points in the second quarter.
It was fellow freshman guard Godwin’s play that exemplified the Indians second half effort, though.
The Indians’ diminutive guard scored 10 points on 4-7 shooting — all of which were scored in the paint — and two of his four steals ignited a late fourth-quarter rally to cut a 15-point Eagles lead with less than four minutes remaining.
“Deshawn did a good job creating steals and fast breaks down the court,” Gibbons said. “He did really good job.”
But despite the Indians cutting the lead from double to single digits throughout the second half, Smyrna found a way to put the IRHS team away.
Johnson and Cephas combined to hit seven of 10 three-pointers and scored 27 of the Eagles’ second-half points. But when they weren’t open, others made shots.
The Eagles bench outscored 13-0.
“Johnson is a next-level, probably a low Division I-player. But they’ve got other kids that can shoot as well,” Kelly said.
“We’d heard good things about Smyrna,” Kelly said of the team’s offense. “I talked to William Penn’s coach about their scrimmage (earlier this season) and they (Smyrna) jumped them. We knew they were good and they came out like a bunch of gangbusters.”
William Penn finished the regular season ranked ninth in the state and lost their second-round match-up in the 2006 state tournament to the eventual state champions, Tatnall.
“Playing Smyrna (in the first game) is like taking the final exam before taking the course,” Kelly said. “It was a challenge, but I was pleased to see them come back and play hard.”
“They could really shoot the ball because they’re a good team. But the way we played against a good team, then we know that we have good things to look forward to (this season),” he added.
“We’re a very young team,” Kelly noted. “But if we keep focused and don’t worry about playing time, and continue to work, work and work — because it’s all about hard work — then we’ll have something to look forward to.”
The Indians will host the Lake Forest Spartans on Dec. 8 at 7:15 p.m.