First, Keyanna Warthen found basketball.
Then she found a place that loved basketball.
And over the past four years, Warthen found that basketball-loving place loved her as well.
As a senior for the ninth-ranked Hoosiers, the Fort Lauderdale native is enjoying arguably the most productive season of her career.
“This year, scratch the COVID, but this year has been great to me,” Warthen said. “We’re making history, we’re playing good basketball, my teammates are doing great things. It’s been fun. It’s not a big difference from other years in spite of the (lack of) fans, but I’m loving the success we’re having.”
It’s a feel-good story that almost didn’t happen for any number of reasons.
In 2017, Ali Patberg was new at Indiana, but she had spent the previous two years away from home at Notre Dame and was only an hour away from her family in Columbus.
That gave the 2015 Indiana Miss Basketball a leg up on Warthen, a Florida girl trying to figure out how to cope more than 1,100 miles from home.
“I was dealing with a lot of homesickness,” Warthen said. “I remember crying in (former assistant coach Janese Banks’) office for two weeks straight every day. I was so homesick.”
It wasn’t a secret, either.
“When she got here, you could tell she was struggling,” Patberg said. “When JB was here, she would always tell me, ‘Stay by Key, stay by Key. She needs you, she’s struggling being homesick.’
“I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to take her home with me.’ Our backgrounds are different but I just knew my family, the way they love, the way they embrace people, I knew they would love Key, her personality, her joy, her heart — everything about her, I knew my family would adore. I took her home and tried to be there for her, because I knew she needed someone.”
It was just what the doctor ordered.
“She took me back home to Columbus with her, and we had this really deep conversation on the way there, and I cried,” Warthen said. “… The more I was around her, the more I opened up to her. She realized I was super goofy and I realized she was super goofy — we had similar personalities. Ever since then, we just clicked.”
That went beyond just her teammate, and extended to Ron Patberg, Ali’s dad.
“I call him more than Ali calls him,” Warthen says.
What exactly they did on that first visit to Columbus, Ron doesn’t recall. A cookout, boating and swimming at the lake, maybe. But Warthen, he’ll never forget.
“It was just the energy she possessed,” he said. “Her likeability is unlike a lot of kids. She’s mature and had the ability to have a conversation, and when you did have a conversation, she was engaged in who I was as a person, wanted to know all about us, just had a really kind heart.”
Just last week, Warthen called Ron after practice — via FaceTime, per usual. During the conversation, Warthen walked past Ali in the recovery pool.
“What are you doing?” Ali asked her roommate.
“Talking to your dad,” Warthen replied.
“Hey dad,” Ali said, then the conversation resumed.
“It’s like Key’s my daughter sometimes,” Ron said.
The support is everything Warthen could ask for.
“Ron has just been there for me from Day 1, him and the rest of the family,” she said. “He just wants the best for me. He pushes me to be great just like he pushes Ali to be great. He tells me to stay focused and stay positive and everything will work out in my favor.
“Every time I do something good in the game, he stands up and claps and goes crazy, but when Ali does something, he doesn’t really react to it. Ron’s a big fan of me, and I’m a big fan of Ron.”
Growing up, basketball was an afterthought.
In the state of Florida, football is king.
“Everybody in my family played football,” Warthen said. “Nobody actually played basketball, but I started pretty late. I was 12 or 13, and for some odd reason, I was looking at a newspaper at home one day and I saw the city’s recreation league program.
“I told my mom I wanted to try to play basketball. She was actually shocked. She was like, ‘You want to play basketball?’ I’d never asked her to play basketball before. The most I did was play street football. She signed me up and ever since then I just loved it.”
Even then, basketball was just a hobby. Track was Warthen’s first sport. She ran the 100 meters and was on the 400 relay team in middle school.
“When we first got in contact, Key was in maybe sixth or seventh grade and was a track runner,” said LaShonda Gaines, Warthen’s high school coach. “She was athletic, a tomboy who never had training. So once we got her acclimated to basketball, it was effortless for her.”
So effortless that by the time Warthen was ready to leave middle school, she was in high demand.
“High schools wanted me to play for them, other high schools,” she said. “I was like, ‘Am I really that good that people want me to play for them?’”
She was, and they did. But Warthen stuck with Gaines and the Flying L’s.
The result was a whole lot of W’s.
“We knew (what we had) Day 1,” Gaines said. “When you get a kid with that size — she came in the gym long and athletic. She told me she played but not organized (basketball). She hadn’t played with a bunch of teams, and this was just her next stop.
“She didn’t throw herself into basketball until middle school. Once she got it, it was like riding a bike. She was very raw but a sponge. She was a gym rat, a strap-up-the-boots kid. Nobody did the work for her and it paid off.”
That work included giving up track.
“I didn’t run track in high school, because I started to take basketball seriously,” Warthen said. “Basketball took up all my time.”
Eventually, some of that time was spent playing AAU ball on the Nike EYBL circuit, where the attention quickly turned into college offers.
UCF and Miami (Fla.) were first, and more kept pouring in after that as Warthen led Fort Lauderdale to a district championship, a berth in the regional quarterfinals as a junior, then to the regional finals as a senior. The 5-foot-10 guard averaged over 20 points and 10 rebounds each of those seasons, being named Orlando Sun-Sentinel Class 8A-7A-6A Player of the Year in 2016 and Miami Herald Girls’ 9A-7A Player of the Year in 2017, and becoming the school’s all-time leading scorer.
“I was surprised because when I came to school, all my teammates started when they were, like, five. Really young,” Warthen said. “I was the one who started pretty late. It really did surprise me when I started getting offers.”
It was quite the four-year evolution, all the way around.
“She started off as a really shy kid,” Gaines said. “Everybody loved her. She came in the gym, smiled and played. She didn’t have much to say, but the better she got, you saw the confidence rise, and people gravitated toward that — it was magnetic.
“… I think the biggest thing is she’s resilient, has always been that way. She comes from humble beginnings but didn’t let circumstances keep her there.”
Part of that meant spreading Warthen’s wings for college. The final decision came down to Miami, South Florida, Oklahoma State and IU, but one factor cut the field in half.
“When I was getting recruited out of high school, my No. 1 goal was to leave Florida,” she said. “I’d never really left Florida, so I wanted to see something a little different.
“… My choices became slim once I realized I really wanted to leave.”
Her visit to IU made the decision easy.
“When I came on my visit, everything just seemed so genuine,” Warthen said. “I felt like the team and the coaches, of course, I wanted a family away from home, so I felt like this was it.”
While she battled homesickness off the court as a freshman, on the court Warthen appeared in 36 games with one start and averaged 11.1 minutes per game as IU won the WNIT championship in front of a record crowd at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall.
“I could not believe we packed that gym out like that,” Warthen said. “Every game was fun to watch, let alone to play in. It was so fun. That was probably my favorite memory also, those couple games down the stretch. The atmosphere in that gym was crazy.”
Another of those enduring memories came after the final buzzer sounded. Warthen played eight minutes, scoring four points in the title game, while Patberg could only watch while sitting out her transfer season.
As the Hoosiers celebrated, Patberg caught Warthen’s eye.
“Everybody was just jumping around, and I saw Ali crying,” Warthen said. “I was laughing at her, like, ‘Why are you crying?’ Then, literally two seconds later, I started crying.”
In a way, that was the beginning of Warthen putting the homesickness behind her and keeping a real connection to Indiana in front of her.
As a sophomore, she moved from the dorms and into an apartment with Patberg. She also developed a new friendship.
One of her classes had a familiar face from the IU men’s basketball team — Georgia native Al Durham.
“We had class together, we had to go to the same tutors together at the academic center and ever since then we’ve clicked,” Warthen said. “He likes shoes, I like shoes. He’s from down South, I’m from down South. We’re just very similar. That’s my brother. We talk every day — every day.”
The pair have taken road trips together, spent time at the Durham home near Atlanta, and are practically inseparable, including shooting contests in Cook Hall.
Durham’s Senior Day came a week before Warthen’s with the IU women on the road to face Ohio State, which made it difficult.
“I was getting emotional, but it was game day for me, too,” she said.
Asked about Warthen prior to the women’s Senior Day game against Purdue last week, Durham warmed to the topic.
“Keeeeyyyy,” he said enthusiastically before the question was even finished. “First, I want to try and give Key her flowers. Wow. Because she stuck it out here for four years, when a lot of people didn’t. Almost in a similar situation as me, where she came in with the group, and she’s the last one standing. I commend Key, I have nothing but respect for Key. I’m not saying that because she’s one of my best friends. I’m saying that because I commend her for all she’s been through. I love Key.
“Key is one of the best people you’ll ever meet, always smiling, can light up a room whenever you need it. She’s a hard worker, and I just can’t say (enough) good things.”
It wasn’t a smooth ride for either player, with plenty of highs and lows and everything in between. Each has leaned on the other.
“We shoot around together, we work out together, we talk about life together,” Durham said. “We’ve gone through these last couple years together and we’ve been through some things. We’ve grown stronger and stronger each year.”
One of those things for Warthen was a decrease in playing time as a sophomore and junior, but she was unwilling to throw in the towel.
“I never really considered transferring,” Warthen said. “Freshman year I really thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this away from home,’ just because of the homesickness, but I never really considered it might be time to transfer.”
That stick-to-itiveness is just part of what’s endeared her to IU coach Teri Moren.
“She is a kid that has just kept showing up — showing up for practice, show up for games,” Moren said. “I think she’s grown so much since she’s been here. She was always a mature kid, but she also helps everybody else feel comfortable. She can light up a room instantly with her personality and kindness and just how genuine she is. She’s truthful and honest, too, for a young person, which I’ve always respected.
“But I’ve just loved the way Key has accepted, and not always liking it, accepted her role. In a day and age where these kids, when they don’t like their role, they get up and leave, Key kept showing up.”
As her final season as a Hoosier winds down — maybe, an extra year of eligibility due to COVID leaves the door open to return — Keyanna Warthen has never been more comfortable and confident on or off the floor.
She’ll graduate with a degree in youth development in May. Not that her high school coach is surprised.
“Not too much knocks her off her game, to be honest,” Gaines said. “She probably found herself, in the process of being at Indiana, in darker places, with not playing as much as she was used to. She doesn’t get too high or too low. For her to stick, that was big, because not many people do that.
“She’s resilient because a lot of people coming from where we come from, wouldn’t have stuck, coming home with a degree.”
Warthen had an internship at Fairview Elementary School and now has an internship at the Boys and Girls Club. She has nine nieces and nephews back home and is a fixture with the children of IU staff members such as director of player development Brianna (Bass) Schoenmaker.
But she’s also had a dialogue with Indiana University Police Department-Bloomington Chief Jill Lees about a possible career in law enforcement.
“I just know I want to work with kids, but I’ve been getting a feel for working in the police department for some odd reason,” Warthen said. “That was what I wanted to do out of high school, but I didn’t want to go to school to become a police officer.”
For now, IU will settle for Warthen policing opponents’ offense.
In the process, she is playing the second-most minutes of her career, averaging the second-most points, and shooting a career-best from both the field and from 3.
“We’re seeing right now how she’s benefitted from staying steady, staying ready,” Moren said. “She’s been so great to bring off the bench right now for us, provided a defensive-minded ballstopper. We’re seeing her be a little more aggressive offensively, but she understands that’s not what we need her to do.”
Warthen is also serving as a mentor and communicator, a role that has been in the making for quite some time.
“My voice makes a difference,” she said. “There’s a lot of people on the team that don’t talk, so for me to use my voice is big. That’s something Coach Moren likes — she likes people that communicate and talk, so I’ve just stepped up in that aspect.
“She’s been telling me to talk since freshman year — on defense, off the court, on the sidelines. She’s been telling me to talk this whole time. … I just feel like a veteran, so my voice is very loud and it’s been heard this whole year.”
It’s heard even more with few fans in the building for games. Every time an IU player goes to the free-throw line, there’s an unmistakable shout from Warthen.
“Up and over, baby. Up and over.”
It’s a reminder to bend the elbow and follow through with the wrist on foul shots.
“Since we’ve been making free throws (lately), they make me say it every time somebody’s shooting a free throw,” Warthen laughs.
There are also times she talks to an opponent but mostly her teammates.
That extends to practice, where she helps guide younger players like freshman Chloe Moore-McNeil, a Tennessee native, adjust to D-I basketball and life away from home.
“Coach Moren’s been running the same things for four years straight, so I have no choice but to be confident now because I’ve been doing the same thing for four years straight, in practice, in the games,” Warthen said. “It’s natural now, very natural.
“Coming from the guard spot, Chloe asks me all the time, she asks questions. I feel good that I can help her and tell her where to be on the court.”
Sometimes, Warthen asks questions, too.
“I literally just asked (a few) days ago, do you guys ever feel homesick?” she said. “I feel like if you’re coming that far away from home, how could you not be homesick? I asked Chloe the other day and she said, ‘Yes, I get homesick.’ I said, ‘Well, you never show it.’ With me, you knew that I was homesick. I barely ate, my face was always (down).”
“Kiandra (Browne) has to be homesick because her parents can’t come over (from Canada) because of the border and she can’t go back, so she talks to her mom every day in the locker room.”
But the pandemic environment has largely turned into a positive instead of a negative for the Hoosiers.
“I don’t know, I guess we all have something in common,” Warthen said. “We all can’t see our families, so we work through our struggles together. Practice and basketball take our mind off that a little. We get along. There are a lot of people on the team who hang out with each other, do little in-home activities with each other to take our minds off things.”
It’s one of many bonds Warthen has forged in the past four years, making that decision to leave one home pay off in finding another.
“I have built so many different families away from home,” she said. “I’ve got Al’s family, Ali’s family, I’ve got Bri and her family, Coach Banks and her family. I just have so many families now that I’m a part of.
“That did make it a lot easier once I got comfortable because everybody’s family took me in like I’m their own child.”