Tamari Key reclaims the paint; come meet her Jan. 19

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Before Sunday’s game, Tamari Key stood at center court with Kellie Harper to commemorate reaching the milestone of 300 career blocks in the final game before Christmas. The Lady Vols had come out of the holiday break with two road games, so it was the first chance to honor the senior at home.

Key, a 6-6 center who overcame blood clots in her lungs that wiped out nearly all of last season, now has 314 career blocks after she added six last Sunday against Kentucky. She claimed the all-time record at Tennessee in her junior season by passing Candace Parker, who had 275.

She also is the all-time blocks leader, men and women, at Tennessee as the Vols’ record is 212 swats by C.J. Black. Also notable, Chamique Holdsclaw is the all-time scoring and rebounding leader at Tennessee with 3,025 points and 1,295 rebounds. Allan Houston leads the Vols in career points at 2,801, and Gene Tormohlen is the leading rebounder at 1,113.

Tamari Key acknowledges the cheers after receiving a basketball to commemorate 300 career blocks. (Kate Luffman/Tennessee Athletics)

Key’s return to the court has been a process as she had to shut down all physical activity for months after being diagnosed Dec. 6, 2022, with blood clots. Players use the off-season to improve strength and conditioning, but Key had to pace herself all spring, summer and early fall in 2023.  She also dealt with the psychological component of having a health issue that could have been fatal if not caught in time.

“My summer didn’t look like everybody else’s in terms of practicing because I was still working on coming back,” Key said. “I had to use the beginning of the season to get back in good shape. I was trying not to get frustrated with myself.”

Tamari Key rejects a shot attempt. (Tennessee Athletics)

Key clearly is in a better space – physically and mentally right now – and her surge has been instrumental in Tennessee starting 2-0 in the SEC. The Lady Vols will host Florida this Thursday, Jan. 11, at 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast by SEC Network.

“What an unbelievable journey that she has been on,” Harper said. “I’m so proud that she’s being able to affect the game. Even not at the best Tamari Key that we’ve ever had, she’s still able to affect the game right now, and hopefully, she’ll continue to move forward and understand that she’s making a difference.”

Tennessee fans will have the opportunity to talk to Key and a host of other Lady Vols athletes and coaches on Friday, Jan. 19, at the Lady Vols New Year Celebration, from 7-10 p.m. at the Lower West Club at Neyland Stadium. A VIP cocktail reception will be held at 6 p.m. Details and tickets for the event, which is hosted by the Lady Vols Boost HER Club, are available HERE.

Key will be on a player panel that also will include Rickea Jackson (basketball); Caroline Kerr (volleyball); Kiki Milloy (softball); and Rylie West (softball). A coach panel will feature Alison Ojeda (tennis); Eve Rackham Watt (volleyball); and Karen Weekly (softball). Fans will have the opportunity to ask questions.

More than 30 female athletes representing multiple sports will be in attendance. The event also will include heavy hors d’oeuvres, silent auction items, cash bar and a photo booth. It’s a chance for fans to support the Boost HER Club and be able to talk to their favorite coaches and players at Tennessee. Attire is business casual so it’s a laid-back event and this writer will moderate the panels.

The return of Key has boosted the basketball team, especially on the defensive end. Driving lanes don’t open as readily, and the other players can pressure the ball more on the perimeter because if an opponent gets around them, Key is lurking near the rim and ready to take someone’s soul with an emphatic block.

“In the huddles, Karoline Striplin is encouraging every perimeter player to get up and guard because Tamari is behind them,” Harper said after last Sunday’s game. “She was verbalizing that. What a great teammate she was in that moment, but that’s the awareness our players have. I would love it as a defensive player knowing she’s behind me.”

The return of Rickea Jackson also has been a factor in Tennessee’s recent success, and the senior forward earned Player of the Week honors from the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, SEC and Tennessee Sports Writers Association after averaging a double-double of 25.5 points and 13 rebounds in the last two games. Jackson also benefits from Key being in the paint.

“We get lit off her blocks every time,” Jackson said. “She is that defensive presence for us.”

The journey has been difficult for Key – she outlined it HERE – and the progress has been incremental this season.

“It was hard,” Key said. “But I said while I was out, it was hard being out, and it was hard trying to get back to feeling like myself, but I’d rather just try to keep fighting every day, working hard in practice to try to get back to who I need to be for the team for us to be successful. I’m going to keep working. I’m proud of myself, but I know there is more in me.”

Maria M. Cornelius, a senior writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications, 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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