Key's speed, savvy a big part of NC State's success

RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina State's Ashley Key sometimes needs a reminder to turn off her brain. OK, not turn it off entirely. Just stop being quite so analytical. Associate head coach Stephanie Glance, in particular, will tell her so.

"Sometimes I catch myself thinking too much," said Key, a senior starter who helped the No. 4 seed Wolfpack cruise, 84-52, in their NCAA Tournament first-round game Sunday against Robert Morris. "I guess it's like the nerdy aspect of me."

She doesn't really mind being kind of a nerd, though, right?

"No, it's fun," Key said, laughing, "because I'm pretty sure I don't come off as being the nerdy type."

Not at all. She does, however, come off as being the brainy type. For good reason. Key, who will graduate in May, is majoring in science, technology and society. She said you could name a calculus, physics or chemistry class at NC State, and she has probably taken it or something like it.

"My teammates have made fun of all the classes I've taken," Key said."Last year, I was taking electrical engineering classes, and I had this binary programming class. They would always see my work, and it was just 1s and 0s, 1s and 0s. And they'd be like, 'That makes no sense to me.' And I'd show them a program that I had made."

Then this year, there's her stochastic modeling class.

"It deals with a production system and how to optimize certain things," Key said.

Um OK, we'll take your word for that, Ashley.

That's what everyone calls her now -- Ashley -- but when she was in high school back in Atlanta, she went by "Taz." One of her coaches nicknamed her after the cartoon character since she was the proverbial whirling dervish, going 100 mph and doing many things.

"She's the kind of kid who went to computer camp, not just sports camps," said NC State assistant Jenny Palmateer, a former Wolfpack player. "Academics is something her parents stressed from day one. So she came to us like that. She's done a great job balancing both here."

In high school, Key used to tinker with every electronic gadget she owned. She'd take apart her computer and put it back together. She knew she wanted to study something involving engineering, and there was a great school renowned for that just 20 minutes from her home: Georgia Tech.

But that was a bit too close. Key wanted to be more on her own in college. But she also didn't want to be too far. She chose NC State, pointing out that Raleigh "is just a 50-minute flight" from Atlanta.

Key wants to attend graduate school in industrial engineering and can see a lot of options for her career after basketball. She reads stories all the time about industries and global warming; she has to do a 15-page paper on that topic for one of her finals.

"I would love to run a company someday," she said. "Or work for a top-10 company. Or start up my own consulting firm.

"Energy is a big issue with different corporations, the automotive industry. Dealing with fuel efficiency. There are a lot of avenues I could pursue."

First, Key would like a chance to play basketball professionally, and NC State's success in recent weeks should help that. A 6-foot guard, she has performed well in the Wolfpack's biggest games. She had 12 points and six assists in the Feb. 16 upset of North Carolina, then a season-high 21 points in the upset of No. 1-ranked Duke in the ACC tournament.

Sunday, in the Wolfpack's first NCAA Tournament victory since 2001, Key had 11 points, four assists and four steals, supplementing fellow senior Marquetta Dickens' career-high 25 points. Key is averaging 9.6 points and 2.5 rebounds with 107 assists to 73 turnovers.

"She brings a lot of confidence to the team -- not to mention she's such a weapon for us defensively and offensively," Palmateer said. "She's so fast and quick. She's got another gear in the open court that not many people have. Defensively, we can really count on her a lot to shut down whoever she's guarding."

Key said that despite all the things the Wolfpack have been through this season with coach Kay Yow taking a leave, then returning as she fights cancer, it has been almost "like a storybook."

"We started out with six seniors and six freshmen, so we knew that was going to be an interesting scenario," Key said of the the team, which also has one junior and one sophomore. "We were really starting to work together, and then Coach Yow was gone.

"So all the coaches and the seniors had to take on bigger roles. And the freshmen were still learning from all of us. Then Coach Yow comes back, and we were rejuvenated. And it's brought us to this point. Her chemo, her dad dying -- there's been so much in this year. It would be a perfect book."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.