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Kihei Clark keys #19 Virginia to big ACC win

KIhei ClarkKihei Clark had a career-high 18 points in Virginia’s 65-39 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday, and the surprise at learning that is, he didn’t have more?

The 5’9” sophomore seemed to get into the paint at will on Hokies point guard Wabissa Bede, hitting on 5-of-9 shots, dishing out six assists, and getting to the foul line a career-high eight times.

There was design behind it.

“We tried to open the floor a little more for him, let him attack and make some decisions, and he was really good,” coach Tony Bennett said.

Bennett went with a four-guard lineup for 34 of the 40 minutes of game action, to counter Tech coach Mike Young’s small-ball lineup that often features five guards.

The approach worked defensively – Tech shot 27.1 percent from the floor and connected on just 4-of-25 from three.

But the small-ball scheme also opened things up for Clark, who had more room to operate with one less big clogging up the paint.

“In the past games, when I come off the pick and roll, I usually have to lob or bounce pass to Mamadi (Diakite), so I felt like they were really keying in on the big guys, so I saw a lane and decided to just take advantage. Scoring is an option, but I’m just taking what the defense gives me,” Clark said.

It wasn’t just all about getting into the lane and scoring. Four of Clark’s six assists were dribble-drives into the paint to kick out to open three-point shooters.

Two of those dimes were to Braxton Key, who finished with 18 points, on 8-of-12 shooting, including 2-of-4 from three.

The 18 was a season-high, coming on the heels of a 15-point effort in last week’s win over Navy, in which Key was 7-of-11 from the field.

Key was also … key … in his defensive effort on Tech’s leading scorer, Landers Nolley, who had 15 points in the first half, on 6-of-10 shooting, but managed just a single make in the second half, a three with 3:50 to go, the outcome long since decided.

The senior, who, you remember, sent the national-title game in April to OT with a block on a jumper by Texas Tech star Jarrett Culver, deflected the credit for the effort on Nolley.

“Really, it was just team defense,” Key said. “I thought in the first half, he (Nolley) got a lot of looks. Some of them were contested, but some looks weren’t, so we know he’s a capable player, and that he can score the ball really well.”

Yeah, yeah, it takes a village.

He didn’t want to talk much about himself, but you couldn’t get Key to stop talking about Clark.

“He just brings a level of toughness, shot-making ability, rebounds, he’s just an all-around player for us, and we really need him to be at the top of his game,” Key said.

Count Virginia Tech coach Mike Young among Clark’s fans. Young conceded afterward that Clark got the best of his guy, Bede, who had come in averaging 6.4 assists per game, and shepherding an offense that was third in the nation in turnover percentage, and finished without a point, two assists and two turnovers in 30 minutes, having given up Clark’s career game, and seeing his team commit 13 turnovers overall.

“Clark got the best of him today, in a matchup that we needed to win,” Young said. “Clark is very, very good, and the engine for them, and they put him in a number of ball screens. I’ll be interested to go back and look at it. He carved us up pretty good.”

Story by Chris Graham

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