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Kihei Clark: The smallest guy on the court has come up big for Virginia hoops

Kihei Clark
Photo: UVA Athletics

I remember the first time I met Virginia guard Kihei Clark. It was on UVA’s media day in 2018, just before the start of the Cavaliers’ memorable run to a national title.

As expected, reporters surrounded the Wahoos’ “big three” — Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter — that day, and as time was winding down, I decided to go get a few quotes from Clark.

Only one other reporter was interviewing Clark, who if you didn’t know any better, you’d think maybe one of the coaches’ kids had snuck into the room. I’ll admit that at first glance, I didn’t think the then-true freshman Clark looked like a guy who would possibly see the floor that season.

“I never pass the eye test, so I always play with a chip on my shoulder, and that’s why I came here,” Clark said that day. “I just wanted to prove to everybody that I could play with the best.”

At 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, the kid just wasn’t tall enough, right? He was a three-star out of Taft High in Woodland Hills, Calif., who had originally committed to UC Davis, and just didn’t seem to be an ACC-caliber performer.

I figured at best, Clark would probably redshirt his first year, and then maybe he’d get a chance after Guy and Jerome were gone. Boy, was that inaccurate.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I was talking to a kid who would wind up playing more minutes and more games than any other player in Cavalier history.

When he steps on the floor tonight against UAlbany (6 p.m., ACC Network), Clark will become the school’s all-time leader in games played with 139, breaking a tie with former Hoos London Perrantes (2014-17) and Mike Tobey (2013-16). Clark is already the leader in minutes played with 4,578, and is creeping up a few other charts as well.

With nine more assists, Clark (590 career assists) will pass Jeff Jones (598) for second place, and he would then have at least 18 more regular-season games to try to catch John Crotty’s record of 683. Crotty (1988-91) has held that mark for over 30 years.

With 15 more starts, Clark would ascend to the top of that list too, passing Perrantes’ current record of 132. Clark is also approaching the top 30 on the UVA all-time scoring list.

With 1,197 career points, Clark needs three more to become just the 38th player in Cavalier history to reach the 2,000-point plateau. With 48 more points, Clark would pass Marc Iavaroni (1975-78) for 30th place. Not too shabby for a guy who almost played in the Big West Conference.

So what that he’s usually the smallest guy on the court? Clark, with the heart of a lion, frequently demonstrates that he has absolutely no fear driving to the basket amongst the trees, and bounces right back up if he’s knocked to the floor. We learned quickly how tough he is about a month into his career, playing with a cast just days after fracturing his wrist.

Combine all that with his overall basketball IQ, his quickness, his passing vision and delivery, and his decision-making, and he’s established himself as one of the most all-around guards in the country.

And then there’s his defense. UVA coach Tony Bennett saw what Clark was capable of back in the summer of 2017 when he carried his AAU team to a Peach Jam title on the national circuit, and it reminded him of his old diminutive Charlotte Hornets teammate Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues’ ability to really pressure the ball.

“I played against Muggsy Bogues, so I know about somebody who is up under you and can always be a problem,” Bennett said.

Clark said he was eating sushi with his father, Malik, one day in early October of ‘17 when he got the call that would change his life.

“Coach Bennett called and offered me, so that’s when I committed,” he said, adding that Bennett “recruits guys that buy into the system.”

Clark learned a ton in his freshman season from Jerome, who’s now playing significant minutes for defending NBA champion Golden State. He explained that day back in 2018 how going up against a taller guard like Jerome every day in practice and picking his brain would set the foundation for his ACC career.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to play against a guard that big (6-5) anywhere else, but if I do, he’s one of the best guards I’ve probably guarded, so it’s good for me going up against him every day,” Clark said of Jerome. “It gives me confidence definitely, just knowing that if I could play defense against him and get stops, I could probably do it against anybody.”

It’s safe to say that Clark has proven time and again that he has belonged in the ACC since the day he set foot on Grounds. He’s knocked down big shots, made one of the most memorable assists in NCAA Tournament history, and has drawn public praise from opposing coaches along the way throughout his time in Charlottesville. It’s also a safe bet that when his last game has been played, a few of his UVA records will never be broken.

Yes, Clark benefited from an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, but his career numbers — and his national championship ring — will live forever in Wahoo lore.

Scott Ratcliffe

Scott Ratcliffe has worked as a freelance writer for several publications over the past decade-plus, with a concentration on local and college sports. He is also a writer and editor for his father’s website, JerryRatcliffe.com, dedicated to the coverage of University of Virginia athletics.