Finger guns and all, Ohio State freshman Zed Key continues to inspire

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State center Zed Key (23) celebrates with "finger guns" after scoring and drawing a foul in a game against Michigan State on Jan. 31.

It took all of two minutes for Zed Key to make a lasting impact on the Ohio State men’s basketball team.

A freshman center, Key was the first substitute of the season when the Buckeyes opened the season at home against Illinois State on Nov. 25. They began that game with a 22-0 run, and Key punctuated it by unveiling a new celebration.

When he scored the first basket of his career on a dunk while being fouled, Key turned to his teammates, pointed his hands like guns and mimicked firing off a few quick shots.

The “finger guns” had arrived. Now, with the No. 4 Buckeyes riding a six-game winning streak after Saturday’s 78-59 win against Indiana, it’s catching on even though Key didn’t deploy the celebration against the Hoosiers.

Six days before the IU game, 6-year-old Ryan O’Hearn scored a basket during his Johnstown Youth Athletic Association game. His mother, Brandy, filmed the shot and the subsequent reaction as her son headed back down the court.

He deployed the finger guns in homage to Key, his favorite player. His mother posted the clip to Twitter, where as of Saturday night it had been viewed more than 21,000 times.

Key was at least one of those viewers. On Saturday, after he finished with six points and eight rebounds, including a career-high five offensive boards, Key said he had to retweet the video when he saw it.

“It warmed my heart,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, other people are actually doing it?’ It was really good that people are (paying attention to) the game and following me, but it was just a silly thing I did in the beginning and it caught on. It feels good to have little kids watching you and do it.”

When he played in high school for Long Island Lutheran in Glen Head, New York, Key said he would “raise the roof” whenever he would dunk the ball. And-one opportunities would result in a more flamboyant celebration with teammates, but the idea for finger guns came to him in the heat of the moment.

They only come out when he is fouled while scoring, and they’re celebrated with his teammates, not at the expense of the opponent. It’s an extension of Key’s personality, which sees him bopping to music pregame and showing off subtle dance moves on the bench or during warmup lines.

He even has filmed a tongue-in-cheek “commercial” for the team's social media channel showing multiple uses for the finger guns in everyday situations.

The youthful exuberance doesn’t also come at the expense of a competitive spirit. Typically the first player off the OSU bench, Key averages 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds in only 12.8 minutes per game as the primary reserve in the paint.

Freshman center Zed Key (23) typically is the first player off the bench for Ohio State, bringing an instant energy as well as 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game.

In his first season, he has had success going directly against projected NBA draft pick Kofi Cockburn from Illinois (eight points, four rebounds in 13 minutes) and reigning Big Ten player of the year Luka Garza (eight points, seven rebounds in 14 minutes).

“We knew we had a good player,” coach Chris Holtmann said of Key. “The reality is probably two weeks, three weeks into practice is when we felt that he was going to play a pretty important role on this team.”

It hasn't all been roses. Five days before the win over Indiana, the freshman played eight scoreless minutes in a victory at Maryland and did not attempt a shot as the Terrapins neutralized him. In subsequent practices, Ohio State coaches challenged their players to hit the glass with more intensity, particularly on the offensive end.

Key and junior forward Justice Sueing each finished with five offensive rebounds against the Hoosiers; against Maryland the Buckeyes had five as a team.

“For me, it’s just come off the bench and do what you do,” Key said of his role. “Go out there, make an impact, seal, be around the rim and also on the defensive end as well. Block shots, rebound, alter shots. The team feeds off of that.”

So do many others, it seems. Before the Indiana game, the scoreboard at Value City Arena aired videos of each player’s family introducing them. Key’s grandparents, Beatrice and Willie Key, announced the freshman, and then both did the finger guns.

Apparently, no age group is immune to their charm.

“We are a huge fans of Ohio State basketball and Ry loves Zed Key’s energy,” Brandy O’Hearn said of her 6-year-old. “He said, ‘I want to grow up and be like Zed Key.’ ”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy