Tamari Key reaches rarefied air

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Tamari Key is still playing limited minutes as she makes her way back from blood clots that hospitalized her a year ago and took her off the basketball court for the rest of the season and well afterwards. In a game last week in Huntsville, Alabama, with 3:33 left on the clock in the second quarter, a Middle Tennessee player drove the lane and Key sent the shot back. It was career block No. 300.

Key already holds the career mark at Tennessee when she passed Candace Parker – who had 275 blocks in three seasons – on March 21, 2022, in an NCAA tourney game in Knoxville during her junior season. Key also reached that number in three seasons and needed fewer games to do it. Her career average of 2.98 blocks per game is atop the Tennessee record book with Parker at 2.50 and Kelley Cain at 2.48.

Her 300th block put Key in another record book as she became one of only nine SEC players to ever reach that milestone. While initial news stories noted it, the other eight players weren’t listed, so it was time to find that list.

It’s a who’s who of post players in the SEC: Heidi Gillingham, Vanderbilt, 1991-94, 413 blocks; Marita Payne, Auburn, 2003-06, 377; Angela Gorsica, Vanderbilt, 1994-97, 368; A’ja Wilson, South Carolina, 2014-18, 363; Vanessa Hayden, Florida, 2001-04, 357; Aliyah Boston, South Carolina, 330; Martha Alwal, Mississippi State, 2012-15, 328; and Sylvia Fowles, LSU, 2004-08, 321.

Key had three blocks in last Sunday’s win over Eastern Kentucky, so her career number is now 303 and counting.

“That’s a big number, and when you put it in perspective, you realize how elite she is as a shot blocker,” coach Kellie Harper said.

If the 6-6 center can continue to get her bearings on the basketball court – the long layoff also causes other body parts, especially knees, to balk at the return to action – Key has a legitimate shot to pass Fowles, Alwal and Boston in the SEC. It won’t be a Covid year-boosted stat either since she missed nearly all of last season and has logged single-digit minutes in seven of nine games for Tennessee in 2023.

Tamari Key blocks a shot against Eastern Kentucky. (UT Athletics)

This writer has said that Key’s blocks can take a player’s soul. There is nothing subtle about her swats. They are emphatic and often make a statement of don’t try that again. During the Tennessee record-breaking season, a Kentucky player good-naturedly posted a photo of Key’s block of her shot on social media with a laughing emoji and a post about how she really thought she could go at Key.

“Having her at the back of our defense is a huge plus,” Karoline Striplin said. “I’m just really thankful to have her in my (post) group just to look up to. I know that she’s such a great presence to have on our team, and I’m thankful for the minutes that she does have when she goes out there.”

With Key limited still, Striplin, a 6-3 center, has stepped up for Tennessee this season. She scored 29 points against Middle Tennessee and 16 points against Eastern Kentucky. The win against EKU was a much-needed one as the Lady Vols had lost three in a row.

The busiest folks on Tennessee’s sidelines his fall have been the medical staff as concussion, leg and wrist injuries have caused multiple players to miss games. Rickea Jackson scored 31 points in the second game of the season on Nov. 9 and hasn’t played since.

Rickea Jackson, an elite scorer, should return soon for Tennessee. (Kate Luffman/UT Athletics)

The 6-2 forward has finally shed the boot on her right foot and posted one word Tuesday evening on her Instagram feed with multiple photos that said: Soon. The return of Jackson changes the starting lineup to say the least. It also means opponents will have to focus their defense on her – and teammates benefit from that with open and better shots. The Instagram post is HERE.

Tennessee has a game on Tuesday, Dec. 19, against Wofford before a week-long break for the holidays. That will be followed by a Dec. 31 game at Liberty and then the start of SEC play at Auburn on Jan. 4. The win last Sunday broke a downward spiral that had taken a toll on the players.

“We for sure needed this win,” Striplin said. “Nobody likes to lose, and nobody likes to lose multiple times. Being able to pick up this win and do it in a way that we know we can, beating the team on the boards, getting stops we needed and starting off strong in the first and second half is a good thing that we can really build on and look at over the next week.

“It really pushes us into SEC play, and I’m excited about what we can do.”

NEW YEAR WITH THE BOOST HER CLUB: Mark your calendars for Friday, Jan. 19, for the second annual Lady Vols New Year Celebration. The 2024 event will be held at the Lower West Club at Neyland Stadium and will feature coaches and players from multiple Lady Vols sports, along with heavy hors d’oeuvres, cash bar and exclusive auction items.

General admission tickets and special access tickets are available HERE, including a VIP cocktail party with VIP parking pass, two drink tickets, gift bag and a panel discussion with Lady Vol athletes.

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at Moxley Carmichael since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.


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