Virginia beat Wake Forest 65-63 in overtime on Jan. 26. The Cavaliers made clutch baskets down the stretch to pick up a much-needed victory, but Braxton Key’s play didn’t sit well with him on the trip home from Winston-Salem.
The senior shot 2-of-16 (12.5%) from the field, including a 0-of-4 mark from 3-point range. His struggles carried over to the free-throw line, where he shot a forgettable 3-of-9. It was arguably the worst offensive performance of Key’s collegiate career.
When he returned home from Winston-Salem the evening after the early Sunday afternoon game, Key went to John Paul Jones Arena. He brought along a shooting partner: his girlfriend. Key popped in headphones as his girlfriend grabbed rebounds.
“She was rebounding for me and she was like, ‘How much longer?’ and I’m like, ‘Until I can make enough,’” Key said.
Key decided he made enough after shooting for about an hour to an hour and a half. The practice session paid off.
After making just three shots from beyond the arc in all of ACC play, Key knocked down four of his six attempts in Wednesday’s 51-44 victory over Clemson.
Some of Key’s struggles shooting the ball can be attributed to playing with a brace on his left wrist for much of the season, but he recently went from a cast to a splint to just athletic tape on his left wrist area.
“I’ve always been confident in myself,” Key said. “Playing in a cast is obviously very difficult, so seeing those go in definitely gave me a lot of confidence.”
While the wrist hurt Key’s shooting, especially when first adjusting to the cast, he started the season 4-of-16 from 3-point range prior to the injury.
He struggled shooting the ball in the first few games of the year when healthy, and those misses coupled with more misses after returning from injury caused Key to force the issue.
In the six games prior to Wake Forest, Key shot 3-of-19 from 3-point range. He was, however, 24-of-47 on 2-point shots, and scored efficiently when attacking the rim.
Key made a point to force fewer 3-pointers after the Wake Forest game. He didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer against Florida State, and his six attempts against Clemson were all quality looks.
Virginia needs an aggressive Key on offense to be its best. Key’s best offensive game usually come when he attacks the basket and takes open 3-pointers within the flow of the offense.
He did that Wednesday night.
When Key’s scoring, it takes pressure of Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite as primary scorers and allows Clark to focus on facilitating. UVa beat Clemson by seven with Clark scoring just one point. He did, however, add 10 assists.
Key’s buckets were particularly important down the stretch. With UVa stuck on 36 points after nearly four minutes without a point, Key knocked down a 3-pointer off a pass from Clark to give Virginia a 39-34 lead with 4:50 remaining.
Clemson trimmed the lead to 42-39 before Key buried another critical 3-pointer with 1:28 remaining in the contest. UVa led by six after the shot and never led by fewer than five points the rest of the way.
“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,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said.
UVa’s 3-point shooting woes are no secret. The Cavaliers rank among the worst teams in the country in 3-point shooting percentage. They were better Wednesday, and Key led the way.
After some help from his girlfriend, Key looked like a 3-point marksman.