Virginia’s Key guns down Tigers with a little help from his friend

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Braxton Key, who led Virginia with 19 points, scores inside against Clemson’s Tevin Mack (Photo by John Markon).

We’ve all been there, working overtime, finishing up a report for the boss, working on our golf swing, trying to perfect that overhead smash shot in tennis, and all the while putting off our significant other.

Yeah, hun, I’ll be done in half an hour, obviously knowing that it will take twice that long as someone waits in boredom until we show up late. Here we go again, the other thinks, patiently waiting and waiting and waiting.

Braxton Key’s girlfriend can relate, but thanks to her patience, Virginia basketball is riding a three-game winning streak after Wednesday night’s 51-44 win over visiting Clemson.

Ten days ago, the Cavaliers managed to pull off a 65-63 overtime victory at Wake Forest. It was a much-needed win after UVA had fallen at home to a so-so NC State team.

At Wake, Key’s shooting was putrid. He couldn’t have hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle. All the way home, Key was eaten up with dismay after missing 14 of his 16 field-goal attempts, including all four shots from beyond the arc. He couldn’t even make a lousy free throw, going 3 for 9.

He decided on the way back that as soon as he got home, he was headed straight to John Paul Jones Arena to work on his shot.

Because his girlfriend had his car, she drove to the gym to meet him and when she got there, she served as a rebounder for his self-imposed extra shooting session. As Key put on his headphones and began to drill shot after shot, his sweetheart rebounded and rebounded, then rebounded some more.

She asked, “How much longer?”

Key: “Until I can make enough.”

The session lasted somewhere between an hour and 90 minutes in Key’s estimation.

Well, give her an assist on UVA’s two wins since that Sunday-night shooting practice. Key was 4 of 9 from the field and 5 for 7 at the free-throw line for 13 important points in the Cavaliers’ win a week ago over fifth-ranked Florida State, one of the hottest teams in the nation coming into JPJ.

Against Clemson, Key saved the Cavaliers’ bacon.

After leading Virginia with eight points at halftime as Virginia led the Tigers, 26-14, Key wasn’t getting many touches in the second half as Clemson mounted a comeback. That is, until he told point guard Kihei Clark to “Find me, I’ll just make a play.”

Clark followed the senior’s instructions and things worked out nicely as Key delivered 11 points in the final 4:49 of the game.

For the record, Key scored a season-high 19 points and a career-high four 3-pointers. His timing was impeccable.

As a result, Virginia improved to 15-6 overall, 7-4 in the scrambled ACC, and managed to hold onto fourth place in the league.

“[Key] is just an older player that saw his team needed him to play,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said after his Tigers dropped to 11-11 on the season, 5-7 in the conference. “He played well and he took it upon himself to make big shots.

“That is what good, older players do. He’s been around a lot of winning here and he has seen other guys do it. I am sure he feels like that is a part of his job here and I just think he stepped up and made some big plays.”

For a while this season, Key struggled with his shot, chiefly because of wearing a cast as a result of breaking his wrist in a nasty fall in the win against Arizona State in late November. He had made only 8 of 45 attempts from the 3-point line all season before Clemson came to town.

Against the Tigers, he was golden, 4 of 6 from Bonusphere and 6 of 13 overall, 3 of 4 at the free-throw line. 

Included in the mix was a pair of HUGE 3-pointers down the home stretch, the first lifting Virginia to a 39-34 lead with 4:49 to play, triggering his scoring spree. The second trey followed with 1:28 to go after the Tigers had drawn to within 42-39.

“I’ve always been confident in myself,” said Key, who transferred from Alabama in time to be part of a national championship. “Playing in a cast is obviously very difficult, so seeing those go in definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”

Brownell was correct in his analysis of an older player trying to win the game in any way possible.

“I made a couple of plays for the team and got to the free-throw line one time, hit a couple threes,” Key said. “I was just trying to do whatever I could to help the team win. My shot felt great tonight so I was just going with that.” 

Tony Bennett was thankful that Key rediscovered his shooting touch after that near loss in Winston-Salem.

“Sometimes you just need someone at that point to make a big shot or make a big play and Braxton did that twice, and we certainly needed it,” Bennett said. “He bailed us out.”

There wasn’t any secret sauce involved in Key’s shooting turnaround. When Bennett was asked what was behind the difference behind Key’s improved shooting, the coach didn’t blink.

“He made ‘em,” Bennett laughed. “We needed those.”

But we all know the real reason behind Key’s success. It was his patient rebounder, wondering in the back of her mind, ‘When is this ever going to end?’

It ended well. Give her a big assist.


  1. George Michie says:

    High character young man attracts high character young woman….

  2. Doug Lewis says:

    Super article about a fantastic young man.

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