Tennessee native Tamari Key is retiring on her own terms


“Thank you for an amazing five years and all the unconditional love and support you have shown me. I have found a home and forever family here,” Key wrote on social media.

Key's news comes just a day after Tennessee fired head coach Kellie Harper and a week after the Vols lost to NC State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Key played her final minutes of college basketball in front of throngs of fans just 10 minutes from her hometown of Cary, North Carolina.

Although Key is ending her career on her own terms, the last two years have raised questions about whether she would even make that decision.

A year on the bench

Just nine games into the 2022-23 season, the Lady Vols announced that the 6-foot-3 Key would miss the remainder of the season due to blood clots in her lung. And while she was expected to make a full recovery, the timeline for Key's return to the court remained unclear.

“It was scary back then. It was just unknown what my next steps would be once I got the diagnosis,” Key told the media before Tennessee’s exit from the NCAA Tournament. “So we just took it one day at a time.”

Key spent the summer in and out of training but was officially cleared to play in October. According to Key, she spent much of the early regular season trying to get her legs back since she didn't play fully over the summer. Throughout November, Key averaged just over 4.5 minutes per game.

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Find patience

Looking back over the years, Key emphasized the importance of patience, which she lacked and searched deeply for.

“I find [patience] will be my constant favorite in life. Whatever life throws at me, it is [about] Patience. “I’m still not a patient person,” Key said The next during March Madness. “It just helps me give myself grace, rely on my teammates to have each other’s backs and for the coaches to have our backs.”

Key tells The next that aside from losing a relative in middle school, the struggle to return to basketball was her biggest challenge in life.

And her diagnosis didn't allow for a quick return. Not only did she spend an entire season outside, but even when she was cleared to return, she had to slowly climb back. Key started 14 games, averaging just over 15.5 minutes per game.

“Then you put yourself in their shoes and think about having to deal with the emotions of not only the diagnosis in that moment, but also wanting to be somewhere and it taking so long to get there. This is hard,” Harper told the media earlier this month. “And I’m so proud of her and her fight. And she just came back every day. She never got too down.”

Despite her persistent work to get back on the court, Key struggled to reach her career-best level during her junior year, where she averaged 10.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game. This season she averaged about half of her junior season stats.

However, Key's presence in the paint was always felt. Harper called her a “mistake eraser,” while teammates noted how impactful her mere presence was on both ends. On defense, her defenders deterred her opponents and on offense she was a reliable target.

A leader in the locker room

In addition to her health, Key also watched two of her closest teammates graduate last year: her friend Jordan Horston and her close friend Jordan Walker. “It was hard. Those were my girls last year,” Key said.

But it didn't take long for Key to get used to her new team and the chemistry between them was right. Although Key never considered herself a leader, she found that part of herself at Rocky Top.

“I think growing up I didn’t really want that [leadership] Role. But coming here and realizing that I’m a leader and being okay with that and knowing that my voice matters on the team,” Key said.

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And during Key's absence from the field, her teammates and coaches always noticed how she kept her head held high, whether she was practicing alone on the sidelines or cheering them on. Described as the volumes Key to The next“Sister” was often the word that came to mind.

“Off the pitch she’s just the big sister. She’s a leader,” junior Kaiya Wynn said The next. “She laughs with us. You can tell she really loves being here.”

And now, after a season that defined all of her skills, Key is retiring as the storied program's best shot blocker and all-time sister.

The decision and what comes next

Earlier this month, Key said The next She wasn't sure if she would return to Knoxville, Tennessee. Even though she wasn't sure, the news of Harper's departure may have played a crucial role in her final decision.

Harper's predecessor originally recruited Key, but she decided to stay and play with Harper when she took over. The two spent the same five years together at Rocky Top and developed a close bond.

Key did not specifically mention the 2024 WNBA Draft in her announcement. Instead, she wrote that she was “starting the next chapter of her life.” Her next steps are unclear, but after watching Harper for five years — including a year spent learning on the sidelines — she hasn't ruled out coaching.

“Before last year I would say 'Absolutely not.' But then I kind of thought, 'Maybe!'” Key said of his future as a coach.

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