As what turned out to be Virginia men’s basketball’s final practice of the 2019-20 season wound down, Associate Athletics Director for Basketball Administration/Operations Ronnie Wideman delivered some sobering yet expected news to head coach Tony Bennett.
“We were at shootaround at UNC Greensboro, getting ready for our game against Notre Dame,” recalled Virginia fourth year forward Braxton Key, who helped the Cavaliers earn the no. 2 seed in the 2020 ACC Tournament. “We were just doing normal shootaround, going over plays, and towards the end Ronnie told Coach Bennett that the ACC Tournament was cancelled and they were still waiting to hear about the NCAA.”
The 2019-20 season not yet officially cancelled, Key and his teammates left Greensboro on a high note.
“It was obviously disappointing, but the guys, we actually ended up playing a game of Knockout, so it was fun,” Key said. “It was kind of sad. It was our last team event, but it was a good kind of way to go out.”
Shortly upon their return to Charlottesville, the Cavaliers learned that the NCAA Tournament was cancelled as well.
“We got back to Charlottesville and we met in the locker room,” Key said. “It was obviously sad. No one wants their season to end. You work all summer long, all preseason, lifting, waking up early to run … you don’t do all that stuff for no postseason, so it’s obviously difficult and tough.”
An ice cream stop on the way back from Greensboro helped soften the NCAA tourney news somewhat, Key remembered. And with some distance from the official end of the season, the standout senior seems content with how his career ended.
“It was definitely difficult, especially being a senior, for myself and Mamadi, but there are so many great memories that it’s all right with me,” Key said.
As a junior last season, Key, who was granted a waiver by the NCAA that allowed him to play immediately after transferring from the University of Alabama, played in all 38 of Virginia’s games and led the Hoos in rebounds per game with 5.3. He had a game-high 10 rebounds and had several key plays – an assist to a cutting Kyle Guy in the final minutes of regulation, a game-saving block of Jarrett Culver’s turnaround jumper as time expired in regulation, and a dunk in the final minute of overtime – while playing 29 minutes in the 2019 National Championship.
Key tuned in to CBS this past Sunday to see a replay of UVA’s historic national championship win.
“Watching the game, it just brought back all those memories,” Key said. “I kind of forgot how big that stadium was. You can tell from some of the camera angles, you can see how massive it was. And just late in the game how guys made big plays. Some things you don’t see the first or second time, but watching again you are looking for different things. The energy of it. I really wanted to get back there this year with this team, but stuff happens. Hopefully next year they can make it.”
As expected, Key, who averaged 19.8 minutes per game as a junior, received an expanded role on the 2019-20 Cavalier team. The senior missed three games with a wrist injury but wound up starting 25 of 27 games. He averaged 33.6 minutes (second on the team), 9.9 points (third on the team), and a team-best 7.4 rebounds per game. Key, whose defensive versatility and ability were vital, totaled 32 steals (second on the team) and 16 blocks (third on the team).
This year’s squad won its final eight games and finished 23-7 overall, overcoming a 3-game losing streak in January that left the Cavaliers with an 11-5 record, a 3-3 mark in the ACC, and plenty of doubters.
“All year long we heard the noise,” said Key, who heard some term this a “rebuilding year” for Virginia.
“For us to show our resiliency … I mean, this team next year will be really good and I can’t wait to watch them play from afar,” Key continued. “Just seeing the way the guys would fight and not give in to losing or anything like that, but just work to be better every single day. It definitely was a high note to finish out with eight wins. Had we won of those games earlier, we could have been tied for first, which would have been crazy.”
— Virginia Men’s Basketball (@UVAMensHoops) March 16, 2020
The lasting image of Key will be him heading to the locker room with fellow senior Mamadi Diakite as winners following UVA’s 57-54 victory over Louisville in the season finale.
“He’s the life of the party,” Key said. “Wherever he is, the energy of the room is brought up. He’s always smiling, always laughing. Cracking jokes. He’s on the phone a lot, talking in French or whoever he’s talking to. Mamadi’s been great. I’ve known him since AAU basketball, camps, tournaments, what not. It’s bittersweet that we ended out on a win together. We wanted to go further. We talked about it all year that we thought we could go to the Final Four, and I thought we were getting hot at the right time. It’s obviously unfortunate that we’re never going to know, but Mamadi’s a great guy and I’m excited to see what he has in his future.”
Since that lasting moment in John Paul Jones Arena, coronavirus concerns have led to a shutdown, basketball-wise and beyond. Key has taken a few weeks to let his body heal from the grind of the season. He has signed with an agent and began training for whatever lies ahead for him in terms of professional basketball. How much he can train and practice is as uncertain as the times we are living in today; however, the now former Cavalier men’s basketball standout is looking forward to his next challenge.
“Just taking it day by day and going from there,” Key said.
More with Braxton Key
Two years at UVA taught Key some valuable lessons on and off the court.
“Just how much I’ve grown as a person,” Key said. “Basketball I feel like I’ve grown also, but leadership-wise I’ve never been in a role to be a main leader like I was this year and last year. Learning from everybody and learning how to be a good teammate. It was difficult not playing as much, but it taught me to be a good teammate, whether it’s in basketball or in life. There’s always ways you can impact and make a difference for a collective group. I’ll miss it for sure, but I guess it’s time for me to move on.”
Braxton Key was my best recruit job 👏🏼 that boy rebounds the hell out of the ball
— Kyle J Guy (@kylejguy) February 27, 2020
Key was asked if he is grateful for Guy’s “recruitment.”
“Obviously I’m grateful for it,” Key said with a smile. “I don’t know if I’m his best recruit. I don’t know who else he recruited, so I have to go in the archives and see (smiles). Being able to play with Kyle was a dream we’ve always had, and we talked about it when we were coming up in AAU. The opportunity presented itself. Thank goodness I was able to get the waiver last year and play, because had I come to Virginia and then had to sit and then Kyle left I would have been pretty pissed, but it all worked out. We won a natty together. We check in with each other every now and then. It’s definitely a good thing that I did come here.”
What will he miss most about UVA?
“Really the people,” Key said. “I had a good relationship with professors and just people around campus. Some of the media people I had a good relationship with. Really everything. Walking to class and being on Grounds. UVA is a really special place. I’m so grateful for it and the opportunities it presented me. I can’t really thank it enough.”