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Freshman Zed Key bringing energy, 'finger guns' to Ohio State men's basketball

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Freshman forward Zed Key Jr. celebrates after being fouled while dunking during the first half of Ohio State's season-opening win over Illinois State.

The idea just came to Zed Key Jr. out of nowhere.

When he was a high school basketball star throwing down dunks for Long Island Lutheran in Glen Head, New York, Key would usually raise the roof. If it was an and-one opportunity, sometimes he would have a more flamboyant celebration with his teammates.

So when Key was roughly two minutes into his Ohio State debut and he drew a foul while finishing a dunk against Illinois State last Wednesday, he had to do something.

The result was a move Key and his teammates have since labeled “finger guns,” and it might be something Ohio State can expect to see more of as the freshman settles into what could be a vital role for the Buckeyes.

“This (celebration) is more laid-back,” Key told The Dispatch. “I don’t know why I did it. It just came to my mind when I was in the moment. Everyone liked it, so I guess I’m just going to keep it.”

The unveiling came with the Buckeyes leading the Redbirds 19-0 in what would become a 27-point win. On Wednesday, No. 23 Ohio State will host Morehead State at the Covelli Center after a 10-point win against UMass Lowell on Sunday that was in doubt until the final minutes.

Through two games, Key has established himself as a low-post presence and the primary backup to senior Kyle Young and sophomore E.J. Liddell at center.

Key has scored 20 points through two games, fifth-most on the team, while averaging 16.6 minutes. And he’s provided a jolt while the Buckeyes have played in arenas devoid of fans.

“He brings great energy and effort to our group, which we desperately need,” coach Chris Holtmann said after Sunday’s win. “He’s been a lot of fun to coach.”

The challenges will obviously grow for Key as the season progresses and the level of competition increases. Holtmann spoke of Key’s need to avoid offensive fouls, and after Sunday's game junior guard Duane Washington Jr. said he was going to spend time watching film with the freshman to help him work on ball-screen defensive coverages.

More:Ohio State men's basketball power rankings: No. 10 Zed Key

Against UMass Lowell, he picked up two first-half offensive fouls, something he’s been working to avoid with position coach Terry Johnson.

“The refs are definitely paying attention (to big guys) so you’ve got to make sure you do everything legal and that you’re not overly aggressive with your movements,” Key said. “Make sure you do everything you can to not get offensive fouls because they’re definitely looking at you.”

The fouls have not been nearly enough to keep Key off the court. He was the first player off the bench in the season opener, and within 90 seconds he was headed to the free-throw line for a chance at his first career points. His parents, Zed Sr. and Carol, were back home watching, but the freshman said he could sense them as he lined up his shot.

“I also heard my parents in the back of my head, telling me, ‘Zed, take your time. Don’t rush,’ ” he said. “That’s what I did. I took my time and drained both my free throws.”

Against the River Hawks four days later, Key finished with eight points, six of which came in succession during a three-minute first-half stretch.

He was one of only two reserves to see second-half action as Holtmann tightened his rotation in a game that saw the Buckeyes trail by five before pulling out the win.

“If I come in the game and play two minutes, I’m going to do that,” Key said. “As long as I’m contributing to the team and helping them win, I’m going to do what I can.”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

No. 23 Ohio State vs. Morehead State

When: 5 p.m. Wednesday

TV: Big Ten Network

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)