CHARLOTTESVILLE — When Braxton Key joined the Virginia men’s basketball team last season, the transfer from Alabama embraced a complementary role, coming off the bench to provide valuable minutes as the program claimed its first national championship.

With the core three of that group departed for the pros, Key moved into the starting lineup this season, becoming the No. 18 Cavaliers’ most reliable scorer lately despite being limited in the aftermath of a left wrist injury in November that required surgery.

The guard-forward has led Virginia in points in each of the past three games, including a season-high 18 in Saturday’s 65-39 rout of Virginia Tech. He played with a splint on his left wrist that’s less cumbersome than a cast he had been wearing.

“It goes to you show this past couple games we really need him,” Virginia point guard Kihei Clark said of Key. “He just brings a level of toughness, shot-making, rebounds. He’s just an all-around player for us, and we just really need him to be at the top of his game.”

Key was having another productive scoring performance in Virginia’s most recent game on Tuesday night against Boston College, leading the team with 16 points, when he tumbled to the court at Conte Forum in the closing seconds and braced his fall with his left hand.

He came up holding his wrist, raising concerns about the possibility of reinjury following the 60-53 loss that dropped Virginia to 11-3 overall and 3-1 in the ACC. But Key’s availability does not appear in jeopardy, at least according to Coach Tony Bennett, heading into Saturday’s meeting with visiting Syracuse (8-7, 1-3).

Bennett indicated during his weekly radio show Wednesday night that doctors found no aggravation of the injury that occurred from a hard landing Nov. 24 during a 48-45 win against Arizona State, forcing Key to miss three straight games.

The most daunting challenge for Key coming back from the injury, he and Bennett both said, was adjusting to the cast over his forearm and hand. Doctors initially fitted Key with a bulky club cast, and he was unable to participate in any basketball-related activities.

Eventually, Key went to a splint that allows for a far more comfortable range of motion.

“It’s a lot lighter,” Key said. “I have more access to my palm, so catching the ball, shooting the ball feels a lot better. With the cast, there was a little space where there was just like kind of a ball where, catching and stuff, everything was difficult, but now less padding and less tape. It feels great.”

Key has averaged 16.3 points and 8.3 rebounds over the past three games, matching his season high with 10 rebounds against the Hokies. For the season, he is averaging 10.8 points and 7.4 rebounds.

Having Key back as a scoring option was desperately needed for the Cavaliers, who averaged just 47.3 points in the three games he missed. For the season, Virginia ranks 348th out of 350 Division I teams in points per game (55.7), 309th in field goal percentage (40.7) and 206th in offensive efficiency (99 points per 100 possessions).

Key also helped stifle Virginia Tech, which shot 4-for-25 from three-point range. The Hokies entered with the best three-point shooting percentage in the conference and were averaging more than nine three-point baskets per game.

Key’s defensive pressure in part held Virginia Tech leading scorer Landers Nolley II in check during the second half after the skilled redshirt freshman forward scored 15 consecutive points for the Hokies in the first half. After the break, he managed just three points.

“He’s a really good player, needless to say,” Virginia Tech Coach Mike Young said of Key. “His versatility aids them greatly.”

At 6 foot 8, Key’s length frequently presents matchup problems for opponents on both ends of the court. Take for instance last season’s NCAA tournament final against Texas Tech, when Key helped hold Jarrett Culver, who was drafted sixth overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in June, to 5-for-22 shooting, including a block of Culver’s jumper at the buzzer to set up overtime in an 85-77 win.

“Everybody has to be on top of their game,” Clark said of the Cavaliers’ offensive struggles. “We don’t have a large of error, but, yeah, we play really well when [Key] is at his best.”

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