Clutch Kelly

Peter Dewey

[media-credit id=2158 align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]This season, with the game on the line, Quinnipiac has constantly turned to one player — freshman point guard Rich Kelly.  

If you look Kelly up on Twitter, you’ll find that his name is “Richie Drama.” Whether that nickname is self-proclaimed or not, Kelly sure has a flair for the dramatic.

While his first season didn’t end the way he would’ve wanted with the team losing to Fairfield in the MAAC semifinals on Sunday, it was one in which Kelly turned some heads with his play.

Kelly’s latest late game heroics came this past Friday in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament against No. 2 seed Canisius. His layup with under ten seconds to play gave the Bobcats a 72-69 lead, which held up as the final after Canisius couldn’t convert at the buzzer, sending the Bobcats to their first MAAC semifinals since 2014.

But what prompted Quinnipiac head coach Baker Dunleavy to call his freshman point guard’s number with the game on the line?

“He could tell by the look in my eyes,” Kelly joked when asked if he told Dunleavy he wanted the ball on the last play against Canisius. “Nah, whatever he calls, I run. I was just hoping he would call something for me and he did, so it worked out well.”

Dunleavy may not have decided by the look in Kelly’s eyes, but he had seen him succeed in this spot before.

“It was really similar to our game at Columbia where they had been really aggressively in all of their pick-and-roll coverages,” Dunleavy said. “[Canisius] was just really hesitant to bring another defender to [Kelly], so we just kind of ran the same play where we got him a layup at Columbia and to his credit he was just really aggressive with it.”

Just like at Columbia, where he hit a driving layup with just four seconds left for the win, “Richie Drama” put the game on ice for the Bobcats.

“[Kelly] is a great example,” Dunleavy said. “His confidence has grown. Early in the year I worried if he would be able to hold up physically. I think he hit a little bit of a slump during the year, just physically and energy-wise, and now he’s completely bounced back and it’s cool to see.”

That slump ended around Feb. 17, when Kelly dropped a career-high 40 points in a double overtime loss to Fairfield. The Stags, the Bobcats opponent in the MAAC semifinals and who ended their season Sunday may have pulled out the win, but Kelly’s performance is still on head coach Sydney Johnson’s mind.

“First of all [Quinnipiac] has a really good player [in Kelly],” Johnson said of Kelly’s 40-point performance earlier this year against the Stags. “He exploited us. It was on me in terms of we were respecting his drive and having him prove that he could shoot.”

Kelly proved just that. He torched Fairfield from beyond the arc, going 7-for-12, including the game-tying three in regulation, as well as two more to bring the Bobcats back from down five in the first overtime.  

“Definitely just confidence in reps,” Kelly said after that game. “I practice a lot of those shots, I hit them a lot in practice. This year I have not been shooting the ball well, to my standards, or probably anyone’s standards, but I know I can hit those, so I was comfortable shooting it.”

Not only is Kelly confident in himself, but the coaching staff is as well. After the 40-point performance, Dunleavy emphasized his work ethic as the main factor.

“I think we all know [Kelly] had it in him,” Dunleavy said. “I think sometimes as a first year player you can go through ups and downs a little bit and if you look just strictly at his numbers you would see a down, but I just think he’s been very consistent in his approach. He’s come to work every day, so this was coming. Not in terms of the exact numbers but just him having a break out game.”

Kelly has shot 39.0 percent from the field and 31.7 percent from 3-point range this season. His 11.1 points per game (PPG) is second on the team, and his 4.7 assists per game (APG) leads Quinnipiac and is fourth-best in the conference.

Not bad for a freshman point guard.

Rich has done a great job for us all year,” Dunleavy said. “He’s been in a tough position as a freshman to have the ball in his hands and be a point guard. He’s grown throughout the year, I think he’s done a great job for us and I think these experiences will carry forward for him.”

He may not be the biggest or most athletic guy on the court, but that doesn’t stop him from making a major impact. Part of the reason that Kelly always seems to have the ball in his hands at the end of the game is because of his great ability to maintain the pace and the flow of the game.

“Kelly, he really controls the game,” Siena head coach Jimmy Patsos said after Quinnipiac defeated the Saints in the first round of the MAAC tournament on Thursday. “You would’ve picked him last in pickup if you walked both [Siena and Quinnipiac] out there. That says a lot about the kid.”

Kelly’s veteran-like calmness and composure has been noticed by his teammates as well.

“He’s good,” senior guard Cam Young said when asked about Kelly’s ability to communicate and direct the team while on the floor. “He gets us into all of our sets, offense or defense.”

As the year has progressed, Kelly grew as a leader for the Bobcats, always directing traffic from his point guard position and improving as a vocal leader as well.

“I think communication is big with being comfortable with everyone,” Kelly said. “It takes time to build that. You have to build trust.”

Now, with the Bobcats forming even more of a bond over this tournament run and Kelly playing a crucial role, that trust is stronger than ever.

“I think we’re really like a family at this point,” Kelly said. “I know we’re a new team, with like six or seven new guys, so it took awhile but we really bonded over the season, and we’re at the point where we can say anything to anyone on the team and they know it’s coming from the heart and that we’re just trying to help them.”

The Bobcats exceeded expectations in Albany, partly in thanks to big performances from Kelly, who averaged 13.7 PPG in the tournament.  

[media-credit id=2200 align=”alignright” width=”300″][/media-credit]If the Bobcats are in another nail biter, they know who wants the last shot.

“I want the ball for my own ego, I guess,” Kelly said with a laugh. “I’m confident in myself to make the right play, but really as long as we get a good shot off, I’m fine with whoever has the ball.”

Dunleavy and the Bobcats are confident too, especially if the ball is in No. 15’s hands.