Kihei Clark: 5’9” on your scorecard, biggest guy on the floor in your heart
Kihei Clark is five feet, nine inches, 160 pounds, of absolute stones.
His Virginia team had made one bucket from the floor in 10 minutes, but because the Cavaliers had held Louisville scoreless for nearly five, it was still a one-point game, in favor of the good guys.
Jay Huff came up with the rebound after blocking a Steven Enoch jumper with 45 seconds left, and the ball, naturally, ended up in Clark’s hands.
It’s not like the sophomore hasn’t had the ball in his hands in a close game late much this season or anything.
He found Tomas Woldetensae for an open three in the final second to win in Chapel Hill, hit a three with the game tied with two seconds left in Blacksburg, hit two free throws with the game tied and eight seconds left at Miami.
That’s been just in the last three weeks.
Saturday, another game on the line, Clark worked a two-man game with Jay Huff, who set a high screen that turned into a slip screen.
David Johnson got knocked off his line just enough to give Clark some light, and, kid didn’t hesitate.
Release. Rotation. Splash.
A one-point game was now a four-point game, and Virginia was on its way to another tight win.
Virginia is 9-1 this season in games decided by three points or less.
Seven of those wins have been since Feb. 11.
Clark, almost always the smallest guy on the floor, by far, has come up huge in each of them.
“I mean, I am always confident,” said Clark, who had 18 points, five rebounds and five assists in 38 minutes in Saturday’s 57-54 win. “My teammates allow me to be confident. I know they trust me to make the play, no matter if it’s a pass or a shot. So, I just go out there and try to do my job and try to make a play.”
Here’s where I make my tongue-in-cheek case for Kihei Clark to be the ACC Player of the Year.
Hear me out. Virginia, after a 53-51 loss to N.C. State on Jan. 20, was 4-4 in the league, 12-6 overall, probably, almost certainly, on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Since that game, the Cavaliers have gone 11-1, and in that stretch, Clark, who through Jan. 20 was averaging 9.8 points and 5.9 assists per game on 34.8 percent shooting from the field and 36.1 percent shooting from three-point range, has averaged 12.3 points and 5.9 assists, shooting 41.2 percent from the floor and 40.0 percent from three.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas makes the point about Clark’s numbers that he does what he does playing for the nation’s slowest team in terms of tempo.
Virginia averages 59.3 possessions per game, per KenPom.com.
Extrapolate his numbers out to the pace that Duke plays, 72.0 possessions per game, and 12.3 points becomes 14.9 points; 5.9 assists becomes 7.1 assists.
Suddenly you get numbers that correlate to Tre Jones (16.1 ppg, 6.2 assists/g, 42.7% FG, 35.6% 3FG).
And then you add on top of that: the winning thing.
Virginia, 11-1 in its last 12, including a win a week ago over Duke, which, credit due, 9-3 in its last 12.
OK, it ain’t gonna happen, but I think I’ve made my point about how valuable Clark is.
Jones probably will be the ACC Player of the Year, and Clark, the point guard on the conference’s, maybe the nation’s, hottest team, has been practically his equal down the stretch.
“He is a gamer,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said of Clark. “I mean, look at all the plays he has made down the stretch. I have seen it since he was in AAU when he was in California. He is a floor general. He makes his mistakes, but he doesn’t bow his head or put his head down. He continues to play, and he’s got some moxie, that is for sure.”
Moxie, and your heart, and significantly, also the heart of Virginia coach Tony Bennett.
“Kihei, he’s done it, and he continues to do it,” Bennett said. “He made the big shot, and we needed every ounce of it. I just can’t say enough about what he’s got going on inside here [pointing to his heart].
Story by Chris Graham