In the second half of the 2019 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 matchup between the University of Virginia and Oregon, a 3-pointer by Ducks freshman wing Louis King left the Cavaliers trailing, 45-42, with 5:43 remaining. No. 1 seed UVA had seen a six-point lead evaporate in a six-minute span, and the Hoos had gone two-plus minutes without a basket.
All season Virginia fans had grown accustomed to seeing Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy sprint off screens for 3-point opportunities. Those types of opportunities were not typical for 5’9” point guard Kihei Clark, whose 3s primarily came from a spot-up position. That’s why it was surprising to see the standout first-year flying off a screen, catching Jerome’s pass, and without hesitation launching the game-tying 3-point attempt. Swish!
Clark tied the game at 45, sparking a 10-2 Virginia run in the final minutes to close out the 12-seed Ducks and send the Hoos on to the Elite Eight. Jerome, Guy, and De’Andre Hunter were the typical go-to suspects in those situations. How could a true freshman have the guts to take and make such a badly needed clutch shot?
“I knew in the tournament a lot of the teams were going to key on Kyle and Ty and them, so I knew when it was my turn to step up I had to do my job and step up and hit a shot,” Clark recalled during UVA’s 2019-20 media day event last Wednesday. “They were sagging off me all game, so just trying to help my team in any way I could. I came off that screen ready to shoot, and so I knew it was going in.”
Clark’s overall performance against Oregon – 12 points, six assists, four rebounds – was critical to Virginia’s national title run. However, the freshman with ice in his veins made plays throughout the tournament, from a 3-pointer that cut Gardner-Webb’s lead to six at halftime to the pass to Mamadi Diakite at the end of regulation against Purdue that will live on forever in Virginia basketball lore.
The fight, tenacity and clutch play of the Woodland Hills (CA) native was what first caught the attention of Virginia head coach Tony Bennett on the recruiting trail. Bennett has mentioned previously that he was scouting another player on the Oakland Soldiers’ 2017 Peach Jam title squad when he noticed Clark, who scored 18 points as the Soldiers defeated Team Takeover in the Peach Jam championship. In October of that year, Clark committed to Bennett upon receiving a scholarship offer.
In his freshman season at Virginia, Clark played 38 games – he earned 20 starts along the way – and averaged 26.8 minutes, 4.5 points, 2.6 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1 turnover and 0.7 steals per contest. He played a large chunk of the regular season with a cast/brace on his left wrist, the result of a hairline fracture that required surgery. The steely freshman known for his quickness and defense missed zero games.
“I think it just tested my mental strength and also my physical strength,” Clark said. “Everybody goes through stuff, so just trying to persevere and just keep pushing every day. Like I said I’ll do anything to help my team win. Obviously, it’s nice to not have a brace, but if I would have to do it again I would.”
Bennett joked that he thinks of Clark as a “grizzled veteran” despite his sophomore status. Given the significant game experience the Woodland Hills (CA) native had as a freshman it’s easy to see Bennett’s point of view. The sheer amount of experience, but also the experience gained in such important games, should help the now sophomore point guard as he assumes a larger role on UVA’s 2019-20 team that is without Jerome, Guy and Hunter, who are off to the NBA.
It’s no surprise that Clark is anxious to take on the challenge his second year presents.
“I’m just excited to step into my role,” Clark said. “I know I have a lot more responsibility. I’m just excited to get back on the floor, just to try to lead the team. I know we have guys like Mamadi and Braxton and Jay, but just trying to lead the guys as much as possible. I only have a year over the young guys technically, so I’m still learning on the fly, but whenever I can help them I try to do my best to help the team.”
Clark worked on his 3-point shooting this offseason, something that could be important with the “Big 3” gone and the team looking to find consistent production from beyond the arc. From a leadership aspect, Clark wants to be a coach on the court, conveying to the younger players what Coach Bennett wants.
“Coming along nicely I think,” Clark said when asked about Virginia’s true freshmen class that features guard Casey Morsell and forward Justin McKoy. Per Virginia Sports, it appears fellow true freshman Kadin Shedrick will begin the season with the plan of redshirting. “They’re going to make mistakes. They’re only first years, but they like to work so I think that’s a step in the right direction. They just got to continue to work hard and don’t put their head down when they make mistakes.”
No question a different Virginia team from the one that won the program’s first-ever national title will be taking the court tonight against Syracuse. What exactly that means remains to be seen, but in discussing the team and its chemistry last week, Clark said: “I think we’re trying to learn each other’s game’s more and get the chemistry down as best as possible up until that game. We’re just going to keep working every day and get as best as we can before that first game.”
“I think the guys on the team are ready to move forward and accomplish something special this year,” Clark added.