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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Mamadi Diakite soared for an uncontested dunk, only to see the basketball bounce off the back of the rim and out of bounds at John Paul Jones Arena.
“That’s the Mamadi I know!” Braxton Key yelled, glee in his voice.
Key and Diakite, on opposing teams in this pickup game, delight in needling each other, and in doing so they’re taking after Ty Jerome, a notorious trash-talker who’s now with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
“I gotta stay on Mamadi,” Key said later, laughing. “We have big things planned, and I know how to get him going.”
Key and Diakite are the seniors on a University of Virginia team that since the end of last season has lost four starters –– Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Jack Salt –– as well as reserve guard Marco Anthony.
“I miss those guys dearly,” said Key, a 6-8, 225-pound forward, “but they’re all doing bigger and better things for themselves, and we’re happy for them.”
Along with sophomore Kihei Clark and redshirt junior Jay Huff, Key and Diakite will be asked to provide leadership as well as production this season.
“It’ll be a challenge,” Key said, “but we’re excited for it.”
Much has changed for Key, a graduate of Oak Hill Academy in Southwest Virginia, since last summer. He was new to the program then, a recent transfer from Alabama to UVA, and it was unclear if he’d be eligible to play in 2018-19.
“I was trying to stay positive about it,” Key recalled, “but I really had no idea.”
In late October, on the eve of the season, the Cavaliers received the news for which they were hoping. The NCAA granted Key a hardship waiver that made him immediately eligible at UVA. What followed for him –– and for UVA –– was an unforgettable season.
“You work your whole life to be in the Final Four and be on the big stage,” Key said.
After reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1984, Virginia defeated Auburn and Texas Tech in Minneapolis to secure the program’s first NCAA title.
In the championship game, which UVA won 85-77 in overtime, Key scored his team’s final four points. The first two came with 14 seconds left in OT –– a long inbounds pass from Jerome set up Key’s breakaway dunk –– and sealed the Wahoos’ victory over the Red Raiders.
“Now looking back on it, I wish I’d done something a little cooler,” Key said, smiling, “but it was amazing. After I’d dunked it, I looked up and I could see UVA fans, basically in the rafters, just going crazy, and it was right in front of our student section, and they were going crazy. Everything kind of slowed down, if that makes sense, and you just saw everyone’s joy and excitement.”
In his two seasons at Alabama, Key started 47 games. A knee injury limited his effectiveness in 2017-18, but in 2016-17 he averaged 12 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game and made the SEC’s All-Freshman team.
In his first year at UVA, he had a supporting role. Key, used mostly off the bench, led the Hoos in rebounding (5.3 per game) and was second in steals (38), but he averaged only 19.8 minutes per game.
“I think that’s always hard,” associate head coach Jason Williford said. “You’ve started at your previous place, and you’re coming in [to a different program] and you’ve got to just find a niche. I think he’d be honest and tell you it was frustrating at times.”
Key, who started six games last season, admits as much. 
“When you’re sitting [on the bench] in those moments, you do get down on yourself a little bit,” he said. “But we had great leaders last year – Kyle, Ty, Dre, Jack – and they all would talk to me and say they’ve been through it. They had their times when they weren’t playing much, and they were like, ‘It’s unfortunate that you’re a junior and having to go through it. We were freshmen when we went through it.’ “
Along the way, however, Key came to appreciate the value of patience.
“It’s not the easiest thing, it’s not the sexiest word, but sometimes being patient is worth it,” said Key, a history major who’s taking a Spanish class this summer.
In the NCAA tournament, Key played 11 minutes against Gardner-Webb and 21 against Oklahoma, a second-round win in which he contributed nine points and nine rebounds. But in Virginia’s next three games –– victories over Oregon, Purdue and Auburn –– he totaled only two points and two rebounds in 19 minutes.
None of that foretold a significant role for Key against Texas Tech, but Key played 29 minutes in the championship game. At the end of the second half, Key blocked a shot by the Red Raiders’ NBA lottery pick, Jarrett Culver, to force overtime, and he finished with six points, two assists and a game-high 10 rebounds.
“Braxton did a great job,” said UVA head coach Tony Bennett, with whom Key had a memorable conversation amid the celebration at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I said, ‘Coach, thank you for trusting me. It’s been a roller-coaster,’ ” Key recalled after the game, “and he was like, ‘I told you, stay faithful and stay ready. You never knew when your time was going to come, and it came today. I’m so happy for you.’ “
In reviewing videotape from last season, Williford said, he was reminded of Key’s importance to the team.
“Whenever we inserted him in games he seemed to come up with a big shot or get a big rebound,” Williford said. “He did stuff that probably didn’t get noticed by everyone, but he was very valuable in our run last year.”
When he transferred to UVA, Key knew he was joining a team that returned several elite players.
“I knew my role,” he said. “It wasn’t to come here and score 15, 18 points [per game]. We had Kyle, Ty and Dre. I thought I could contribute more offensively, obviously, but just sticking with it and finding niches and ways to stay on the court was kind of my thing. I just tried to be a defensive presence and do the little things that [other] guys may not do to help me stay on the floor.”
Guy, Hunter and Jerome combined to average about 44 points per game last season. With them gone, Williford said, the Cavaliers need Key, who’ll again split time between small forward and power forward, to “be the rock-solid defender and rebounder he already was, but also boost his offensive output.”
Key, who scored 20 points in UVA’s victory over Florida State in January, is confident he can do so. 
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I’ve worked on my shot, and my finishing has gotten a lot better. Scoring’s not my only thing, but that’s one thing that I will have to contribute. A lot of guys have to step up –– Mamadi, Jay, Kihei, the guys who are returning –– and then new guys are going to have to play roles they probably weren’t expecting. It’ll be good to test everyone’s ability.”
His cheering section includes his mother, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., and his father, who lives in Reading, Pa.. Key also has relatives in Harrisonburg, Roanoke and Richmond, among them UVA legend Ralph Sampson, the son of Key’s grandfather’s sister.
They’ve seen him progress, in a span of 12 months, from a rookie to a veteran in Bennett’s program.
“My confidence is way higher,” Key said. “I’ve been working on my game and just feeling more comfortable in the offense. Even defensively I feel more comfortable. Young guys are asking me questions, and it’s kind of funny, because last year I was asking Dre, Kyle, Ty, ‘Am I in the right position? Am I in the gap? Am I doing what I’m supposed to be doing?’ Just being able to help everyone else out has been big.”