Tennessee will be without Tamari Key for the duration of its women’s basketball season after doctors found blood clots in her lungs during testing.
The 6-foot-6 senior center missed Tuesday’s game against Chattanooga and coach Kellie Harper said afterward she would update the situation when she had more information. She released a statement Thursday morning.
“My sole concern right now is that Tamari continues to get the medical care and guidance she needs and begins the gradual process of healing and returning to full strength,” Harper said. “This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught. Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”
Key, who before Tuesday had not missed a game during her four seasons at Tennessee, will continue to receive care under the guidance of the University of Tennessee Medical Center and athletics team physicians. She is expected to make a full recovery.
Harper obviously was correct in emphasizing Key’s health as being bigger than basketball. But the season goes on and her absence must be addressed. The four-year starter had become Tennessee’s career leader in blocks and was a key figure on defense.
At least, the Lady Vols have some fresh experience in playing without star players. Guard Jordan Horston missed a 79-67 loss to Indiana on Nov. 14 because of a knee injury. Forward Rickea Jackson, the most celebrated of the four offseason transfers, has missed the past two games for what Harper termed a “coaches decision.” Harper said the situation was “indefinite.”
Along with Jackson, fellow transfers Jillian Hollingshead and Jasmine Franklin missed Sunday’s 59-56 home loss to No. 7 Virginia Tech due to concussion protocol. Franklin remains sidelined.
These absences have factored into the Lady Vols stumbling to a 5-5 start, dropping out of the Top 25 polls and replacing the preseason optimism with frustration – or worse.
Before any of the news regarding Key, Harper had said: “Great teams don’t become great without adversity; they don’t. And our players have to understand that this is a moment that can define who you are. It’s not always easy, but that’s OK. We can figure it out even in tough times.”
Without Key, Tennessee held Chattanooga to 39 points and 30.4 percent field goal shooting. Afterward, Mocs coach Shawn Poppie told his players: “I think this is the first time all year – I told them this in the locker room – that we got hit in the mouth a little bit. And it was hard to find our footing.”
A trio of sophomores – Karoline Striplin, Sara Puckett and Jillian Hollingshead – played significant roles in Tennessee’s performance. The 6-5 Hollingshead best approximates Key’s physical dimensions. She’s also athletic and mobile.
“I thought she was good at the high post because she is so athletic and quick, but she’s also got great size and some great post moves on the block as well,” Harper said. “So, I love the fact that we can move her around. The more she’s played the more comfortable she’s been.”
Going forward, Tennessee will need a revised storyline when facing No. 2 Stanford on Dec. 18, not to mention some other teams still lurking on its schedule. The Lady Vols certainly could use Jackson. She leads the team in scoring (17.6 points per game) and rebounding (6.6). The “coaches decision,” its merits notwithstanding, has made the tough times tougher. The situation needs to get figured out.
Dan Fleser is a 1980 graduate of the University of Missouri, who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since 1988. He is a 2022 inductee to the Tennessee Sportswriters Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com.