Tamari Key saw Jacy Sheldon coming off the screen.
Sheldon, the Ohio State guard, drove down the lane, but Key stepped with her. Lady Vols basketball’s 6-foot-6 center turned and raised her right arm as Sheldon attempted a layup around her.
Key swung down and smacked the ball out of bounds for her second block of the night. The fans in Thompson-Boling Arena at Food City Center on Sunday cheered with joy at the sight of Key looking like her old self. It has been a long journey back to playing after blood clots in her lungs sidelined her last season.
“She definitely had a really big impact,” junior guard Kaiya Wynn said. “I know you all remember when she swatted the girl’s layup out of bounds . . . definitely glad to have her and look forward to seeing what she does for the rest of the season.”
Key had nine points, four rebounds, two blocks, an assist and a steal in 16 minutes, all season highs.
It wasn’t enough to turn the tide of the game, which No. 22 Tennessee lost 78-58 to No. 13 Ohio State, but Key was one of the only bright spots in the fourth loss of the season.
Lady Vols coach Kellie Harper said Key was coming off her two best practices of the year “where she looked good.”
” . . . She looked like a different player, and she looked more comfortable, and she looked more confident,” Harper said. “So we wanted to make sure we got her in, and every game is different. The swings in the game are different, and sometimes you go in with a game plan in terms of minutes, and that gets wiped away.
“But I knew going in this game, we were going to get her in it, and felt like if we could get them to a half-court defensive possession, that she will be able to help us.”
Key didn’t play in Tennessee’s 74-69 loss to No. 14 Notre Dame on Nov. 29, which Harper said was due to the pace of the game.
On Sunday, Key had the highest plus-minus of the team (plus-4), shot 3-for-4 from the field, and drew fouls on three other shots. Her presence wasn’t felt only in the paint, but in her experience as well.
“I saw some poise from her tonight that I was really proud of and impressed with,” Harper said. “So I think her voice is important, as well as all the things that we can do. She’s a problem for a lot of opponents.”
Key’s first meaningful minutes of the season are about where the positives of Sunday’s game end, however.
The Lady Vols (4-4) dug themselves into a hole by halftime because of turnovers and never got back in the game. Ohio State (6-1) carried around a 20-point lead for most of the second half and forced 20 turnovers total.
Tennessee got outrebounded for the second game in a row, got outscored in the paint for the second game in a row and got outhustled Sunday. When the Lady Vols started breaking Ohio State’s full-court press, they struggled to score, and still turned the ball over in the half court. Tennessee’s reserves outscored the starters 35-23.
Tennessee has lost four of its five ranked matchups on its nonconference schedule, three of which were without star forward Rickea Jackson. The senior has missed six games due to a lower leg injury, and she was not wearing a boot on her right foot Sunday for the first time in her recovery. Harper didn’t provide an update on Jackson’s status.
But what has become clear is this Tennessee team lacks mental toughness and a competitive edge without its star.
When Harper was asked how confident she was in the team’s mindset to not let Sunday’s loss affect them, she didn’t provide any reassurance.
“I’m not sure,” she said. “I’m not sure where we are exactly. So that is obviously the big question, the big challenge that we have in front of us . . . it’s going to be a challenge for them — a challenge that they can absolutely handle.
“I believe in them and I know they can do that, but that’s beyond me. That’s something that they have to internalize and something that they have to do on the floor.”
Cora Hall covers University of Tennessee women’s athletics. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @corahalll. If you enjoy Cora’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that allows you to access all of it.