Cavalier Corner

February 2020

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14 CAVALIER CORNER BY BRAD FRANKLIN I T WILL GO DOWN AS ONE OF the most beautiful, most improbable plays not just in Virginia basketball history, but perhaps in the history of college hoops as a whole. Kihei Clark raced into the backcourt to corral the tipped rebound off Ty Jerome's missed free throw, dribbled ahead about 10 feet short of midcourt and then fired a one-handed pass to Mamadi Diakite. And with Diakite's made jumper, UVA forced overtime in the Elite Eight and eventually beat Purdue on the way to the Final Four and a national championship. But while Jerome, De'Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy moved on to the NBA last spring following UVA's title run, a host of Cava- liers were tasked with putting together an encore this season. And perhaps no player has had to carry the weight of that reality like Clark, a 5-9, 163-pound dynamo who went from first- year revelation in support last season to second-year stalwart seemingly in the blink of an eye. "He has such a load on his plate," head coach Tony Bennett said of Clark after UVA's 63-58 win at Georgia Tech Jan. 18, during which Clark notched seven assists compared to just two turnovers while play- ing all 40 minutes. "He has to do so much. I think at times, he's played like a warrior and been remarkable. And, of course, there's times that he hasn't played his best, but he's got to do that." The Woodland Hills, Calif., native av- eraged 4.5 points, 2.6 assists (second on the team behind Jerome) and 2.3 rebounds per game while shooting 34.1 percent from deep in his rookie season. He ended up playing nearly 27 minutes per game and started 20 of UVA's 38 contests. Through 18 games this season, Clark was putting up 9.6 points, 5.9 assists and 4.3 boards per contest — a performance that drew praise from his head coach. "Some guys have been thrust into spots that probably we weren't planning on," Ben- nett said after the victory versus the Yellow Jackets. "I thought [Clark] was tough to- night, as were other guys, and it was good to see that." Clark's path to UVA and making that play against Purdue in the South Regional Final isn't exactly common. Heading into his final summer of AAU basketball, the then junior guard was committed to UC Davis and had no clue that one day he'd be logging major minutes in the Atlantic Coast Conference. But a fateful decision — to switch AAU programs and play on Nike's vaunted Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) circuit — changed his life forever. "Being a basketball junkie, you grow up watching the ACC," he recalled. "You grow up watching Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and those teams. You watch those guys and those names, and so it's always a dream to play at the highest level. I wouldn't say that it wasn't something I thought about, but I just never knew if I would make it to that level. In my situation, I never really took it seriously, to be honest. "After we played in Peach Jam that year, I decided to decommit from UC Davis because I got interest from some bigger schools, and that was the whole reason I chose to play in the EYBL that year anyway. I just wanted to kind of prove to myself that I could play at that level and play against some of the best guys in the country. I decommitted so I could explore my options because I thought maybe I committed a little early. "I want to say it was three months later, some time at least, when Coach Bennett got in touch with me and said they had been watching my team because of the other point guard we had, James Akinjo. But coach really liked my game and since I was committed then, he didn't want to pursue me. Then when I was open and we got in touch, it was a couple of days and it all happened pretty fast." ENCORE PERFORMANCE Second-Year Point Guard Kihei Clark Is Embracing His Increased Responsibility In 2019-20 Through 18 contests, Clark was averaging 9.6 points, 5.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game — roughly double his produc- tion in each category from last year. PHOTO BY MATT RILEY/COURTESY UVA

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