CHARLOTTESVILLE — A year after being a role player on Virginia’s national championship team, Braxton Key is emerging as a star on a UVA squad fighting for the chance to defend that title — and just in the nick of time.

Key, a senior forward whose season was derailed by an early wrist injury, scored 19 points, including a crucial late 3-pointer, as the Cavaliers won their third straight, holding off Clemson 51-44 on Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena.

“I told Kihei [Clark], ‘Find me and I’ll just make a play,’” Key said. “Just trying to do whatever I can to help the team.”

In a nothing-comes-easy kind of basketball season, Virginia (15-6, 7-4 ACC) played its sixth straight game decided by 7 points or fewer. It’s now won four of those going into Saturday’s major test at No. 5 Louisville.

“How many times have we been in that position? I think we’re almost used to it,” junior forward Jay Huff said. “We just like to make it entertaining.”

Senior forward Mamadi Diakite scored 13 and Huff added 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Clark finished with 10 assists.

The Cavaliers cut down dramatically on their turnovers, committing just eight, two in the first half.

A week after upsetting then-No. 5 Florida State, and despite never trailing, the Cavaliers found themselves fighting off an equally rugged challenge from a far lesser opponent in Clemson (11-11, 5-7), a team it had beaten nine straight times entering Wednesday.

After leading by as many as 12 early in the second half, UVA was in another one-possession game in the final two minutes. But Key’s straightaway 3-pointer with 1:26 to go put it up 45-39, giving the Cavaliers the cushion they would need for a critical conference win as they work on their NCAA tournament résumé.

Key, still playing with his wrist wrapped following a November surgery, scored 11 points in the final 9:31.

“Sometimes it gets to that point,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “Say I’m going to jump up and make a shot or make a big play. And Braxton did that twice and we certainly needed it.”

Early on, it didn’t appear the home team would need a late surge to secure this victory.

UVA jumped out to a 14-2 lead as Clemson hit just one of its first seven shots and committed three turnovers in the first seven minutes. On offense, the Cavaliers found success playing above the rim, getting a big early dunk from Diakite and an ally-oop slam from Jay Huff.

Virginia led 26-14 at the break, thanks in part to six first-half turnovers by the Tigers, in the only meeting between the teams in this year’s regular season.

But an 8-4 spurt to start the second half cut UVA’s edge to 30-22.

Clemson closed to 36-31 with 7:22 to play after a pair of free throws by Tevin Mack. But down the stretch, Key took over.

He came into the night cold from 3-point range, having hit just one of his last 19 attempts beyond the arc. He hadn’t hit a 3 in his last five games. Wednesday, he finished 4 for 6 from that range.

“Braxton Key, who has not been shooting well, made some big shots, big 3s,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said. “He was probably the difference in the game.”

FG FT Reb

CLEMSON M M-A M-A O-T A PF PT

Simms 40 6-16 2-4 1-3 2 2 16

Dawes 21 5-12 0-1 0-8 0 4 11

Newman 32 3-5 0-0 1-4 3 2 7

Trapp 33 0-4 0-0 0-5 2 1 0

Mack 32 3-10 2-2 2-7 1 4 10

Scott 13 0-3 0-0 1-1 0 1 0

Hemenway 6 0-1 0-0 0-1 0 0 0

Moore 6 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

Tyson 6 0-1 0-0 0-0 0 2 0

Totals 200 17-52 4-7 5-29 8 16 44

Percentages: FG .327, FT .571. 3-Point Goals: 6-28, .214 (Simms 2-5, Mack 2-9, Newman 1-2, Dawes 1-6, Hemenway 0-1, Scott 0-1, Trapp 0-4). Team Rebounds: 5. Blocks: 2 (Simms 2). Turnovers: 9 (Mack 3, Simms 2, Trapp 2, Dawes, Hemenway). Steals: 5 (Simms 2, Dawes, Mack, Scott).

FG FT Reb

VIRGINIA M M-A M-A O-T A PF PT

Diakite 35 4-10 4-6 1-8 1 1 13

Huff 36 4-8 2-4 2-10 0 3 10

Clark 37 0-3 1-3 0-2 10 2 1

Key 36 6-13 3-4 2-8 2 1 19

Wldtnsae 20 1-6 0-0 0-1 0 3 3

Stattmnn 22 2-4 0-0 0-4 0 1 5

Morsell 11 0-2 0-0 0-1 0 0 0

Coleman 3 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0

Totals 200 17-46 10-17 5-34 13 11 51

Percentages: FG .370, FT .588. 3-Point Goals: 7-20, .350 (Key 4-6, Stattmann 1-1, Diakite 1-3, Woldetensae 1-6, Clark 0-1, Morsell 0-1, Huff 0-2). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocks: 7 (Huff 4, Diakite 2, Morsell). Turnovers: 8 (Clark 4, Diakite 2, Stattmann, Woldetensae). Steals: 5 (Woldetensae 2, Clark, Diakite, Key).

Clemson 14 30 — 44

Virginia 26 25 — 51

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