Now in his fourth season with the Virginia Cavaliers, Kihei Clark has seen and done it all in his time wearing the orange and blue.
As far and away the most experienced player in the Virginia system on this team, Clark has played a fascinating role so far this season. At times he’s taken a step back and played a more complementary role in order to let other guys lead and take charge.
But, when it matters most, Kihei still has that big game, clutch gene that has saved Virginia so many times over the last four seasons. Whether it be the title-run-saving, half-court pocket pass to Mamadi Diakite to force overtime against Purdue in the Elite Eight, a buzzer-beating game winner on the road against Virginia Tech, or numerous big threes he’s hit late in games against teams like Louisville and Duke, Clark has proven his mettle in the biggest moments time and time again.
While Clark was a critical piece of the National Championship team back in the spring of 2019, it was his play that fall that was the stepping stone for the type of player he is now.
In a season-opening contest against Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, Clark was — for the first time — asked to lead the team. Following the departures of De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome, Clark was just about all that was left in the backcourt and had to take a big leap early in his career.
Playing all 40 minutes that night, Clark led the ‘Hoos to a gross 48-34 win as he scored 10 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and dished out seven assists while carrying the team to victory. It was by no means pretty as he turned the ball over three times and shot 3-9 from the field — and 2-8 from beyond the arc.
Nevertheless, there were signs of what was to come as Clark flashed his high risk, high reward potential as a lead guard.
Since then, Clark notes that he’s developed as he plays with “just a little more poise on the offensive end,” as he continues to try “to do a better job leading our guys on both ends of the floor. In those two aspects I think I’ve grown.”
Against Syracuse on Saturday evening — over two years since that November contest in the Carrier Dome — Clark reasserted himself as the leader of this team and the eldest statesman of the program. His 17 points, 8 assists, four rebounds, along with a block and a steal were evidence of a clutch performance.
“He’s been in this setting [before],” says Tony Bennett. “This is his fourth year playing against the [zone],” which proved critical against Syracuse on Saturday since “no one else has played in the Carrier Dome except for Kihei.”
Clark’s leadership and comfort in big moments was absolutely crucial last night. In fact, Clark scored seven of his 17 points in the final 3:28 of play as he nailed a deep three to put the ‘Hoos up by six, then drove to the hoop to score a sweet reverse layup, and then closed out the game with a pair of free throws to make the game a two score affair with 22 seconds remaining.
Of the deep three that made the score 68-62 with 3:28 left, Bennett emphasizes how “That was huge. It was deep,” and that “we needed that,” because “they were coming.”
At the end of the day, Bennett says, “You gotta stretch that zone and make a big shot. A big shot or a big drive. That was huge.”
Kihei made his presence felt even beyond just scoring the ball as he orchestrated the offense and consistently worked for the best shot each and every time down the floor.
Clark also came up big defensively against Syracuse point guard Joe Girard as he held the 13.1 point per game scorer to a mere three points on 1-5 shooting.
All of that just goes to show that even though Clark doesn’t lead the team in any major statistical category or, even though he’s not the top NBA prospect on the roster nor the most talented, Kihei remains this team’s leader. He’s the guy who Bennett wants to have the ball when it matters most. He’s who is most comfortable when the clock is ticking down and a play needs to be made. And he’s the guy who is willing to play any role necessary to win games.
Above all else, above his successes or the significance of his contributions, Clark says that his mindset remains about “trying to get better each and every day and trying to help my team win.”
That’s what he did against Syracuse on Saturday. And that’s what Virginia needs Clark to continue to do to turn things around this season.