Braxton Key made two huge plays at nearly the same spot on the floor Sunday. One energized the John Paul Jones Arena in the first half. The other energized the Virginia basketball team in the second half. Both made sure that Navy didn’t torpedo UVA’s final game of the decade as the Cavaliers pulled away to a 65-56 victory.
Key finished with 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals, and 1 blocked shot in the win. That’s a strong way to return to the starting lineup as the senior forward continues to work through the aftermath of an injured left wrist. The cast continues to shrink, his role continues to grow again, and his presence alone might be one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for this year’s Hoos.
With Mamadi Diakite still being an emotional swing player and Kihei Clark adjusting to the heavier load as a sophomore, Key brings an experienced voice and calm demeanor to a team that still needs a grounding rod.
“Yeah, as he’s healthy and he’s probably our best rebounder and most physical player, and again he knows how to help defense and has the most experience,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “He, Mamadi and Kihei have the most experience, so without him we were trying to find it. But seeing him emerge and play, he’s steadily gotten more time and played better and we needed it. I just keep challenging him to be as great as he can defensively, all over the glass and then keep finding ways to be effective offensively and he did that. So, it definitely steadies us as much as we can be steadied at times.”
That phrase “all over the glass” is a great way to describe Key’s first half play that got the building jumping. Located outside the 3-point line in front of the visiting bench, he saw guard Casey Morsell line up a 3-point shot from the opposite wing with 8:14 remaining before intermission. With Navy in a zone defense, there was an open path and Key didn’t hesitate to take it.
Morsell’s attempt bounced off the front of the rim and Key had timed his run perfectly. He rose up, controlled the ball with his right hand, and then slammed it home with ease. The buzz hung around the arena for at least the first 15 seconds of Navy’s next possession.
Key couldn’t help but smile when asked about it after the game.
“Coach has challenged me to crash the glass,” Key said. “I did it a lot last year. I have kind of settled outside since I broke my wrist, but I mean, I just went up there and I thought I could make a play and I did. I did not think I was going to finish it, but I just thought, I do not even know. I have got to see the replay and then go from there.”
Here’s that replay:
As flashy as that moment was, a second half sequence from Key proved not only more important but more in character for the forward. The Midshipmen had started the second half with a 12-3 run and took a 41-40 lead on a John Carter Jr. 3-pointer with 10:41 to go. Clark flipped UVA back in front with a jumper, but Key turned that see-saw into a catapult with his next two plays.
Carter drove into the paint to try to get the lead again when Key rotated over and blocked the shot away. He then sprinted up the floor to receive a pass from Clark, which turned into a layup and a foul when Cam Davis clipped Key’s arm as he changed directions to get the bucket. That old-fashioned 3-point play helped spark a 12-0 run that kept UVA in the winner’s circle for the final time in 2019.
“I think it was a spark,” UVA’s Jay Huff said of that sequence. “Braxton had a couple plays today that were just amazing. I’ve never seen him do anything like that put back dunk before. He did a lot for us today.”
Key found plenty of support on offense as the Cavaliers played one of their better games of the season to date on that end of the floor. In addition to Key’s team-leading 15 points, five other Hoos chipped in 8 points or more as well. Mamadi Diakite tallied 13 points and 8 rebounds, while Morsell added 10 points that included a pair of 3-pointers. Huff tallied 9 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots and Tomas Woldetensae contributed 8 points as well.
The distributor on a lot of those buckets was Clark, who posted his second career double-double with 10 points and 13 assists. His scoring included a shot-clock buzzer beater during the decisive stretch and he set a new career-high for helpers which, importantly, came against just 2 turnovers. Clark had 13 assists and 13 turnovers in the two previous games against Stony Brook and South Carolina. In the Navy game, he kept the assists coming but eliminated most of the mistakes on the other side of the ledger.
“You definitely go back and watch film to see where you can correct your mistakes,” Clark said. “I think it was also partly trying to do too much at times during the South Carolina game so I was just trying to let the game come to me, just take what the defense gives me, and not try to do too much.”
That helped the Hoos match their season high with 65 points and generated 37 points before halftime. While the game still featured the lull that let Navy climb back into the game to start the second half, that’s a good step forward considering the offensive struggles that have come during the first part of this season. UVA shot 53.2% overall (25-47) and 42.1% from 3-point range (8-19) in the win.
The question new becomes whether the Cavaliers can carry that progress back into ACC play the rest of the way. They started 2-0 in conference games this season, but the real gauntlet begins Saturday with Virginia Tech at the JPJ.
“I think there are a lot of things we can always improve on but at the same time, I think we are where we need to be in terms of coming together and knowing what we need to do,” Huff said. “I think today was a good example of that. We put a lot of stuff together and we need to make sure we keep that up. There were times in the huddle where, rather than pointing fingers and asking what happened, we knew what we did and in the second half we tightened it up.”