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In Defense Of Kihei Clark

Success seems to have spoiled some Virginia fans

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Virginia Tech
 Feb 26, 2020; Blacksburg, Virginia, USA; Virginia Cavaliers guard Kihei Clark (0) shoots against the Virginia Tech Hokies in the first half at Cassell Coliseum. 
Michael Thomas Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

We were poking around after Duke’s win, last night and today, and as far as we can tell, Virginia fans seem really fed up with Kihei Clark.

To which we say: seriously? The guy who is responsible for this bit of athletic brilliance? Or this clutch three for the win? Or who made this buzzer beater possible?

And they want to bench him? This guy?

The reality is that if Clark hadn’t made that amazing pass against Purdue, we’re talking about how that UVA team made a nice run, not that it had a legendary run to the championship.

At Duke, Virginia had a couple of things to deal with. First, while as Scott pointed out today, while Duke’s switches left 7-1 Jay Huff guarded by smaller players, it also left Clark with guys who were a foot bigger on him, and that’s not easy to pass around.

We’re great admirers of Tony Bennett’s, but if there’s fault here, it’s his. He didn’t adjust to Duke’s move. But in his defense, who could he put in for Clark that could do better?

If that had been reversed and Virginia had been switching like that, Duke could have let 6-6 Wendell Moore run the offense. He’s not a natural point guard but he’s versatile enough to execute the offense.

Look at who Virginia played: 7-1 Jay Huff, 6-8 Sam Hauser, 6-8 Trey Murphy, 6-3 freshman Reece Beekman, 6-8 Justin McKoy, 7-0 Francisco Caffaro and 6-3 Casey Morsell.

Clark played 38 minutes for two reasons: first, Bennett trusts him, and second, the only guy who could really back him up is Beekman, and for whatever reason, possibly fouls, Bennett chose to play him only 19 minutes.

You could argue that Bennett should have recruited another guard or wing but that’s pointless. He has what he has. And it’s worked really well, generally speaking.

Most of the vitriol, aside from not getting the ball inside to Huff (who finished with 20 points and 12 boards) enough to satisfy his critics, comes down to the last few plays. But even there, look again: he got the ball to Hauser for an open three with about :40 left on the clock. Matthew Hurt was close but didn’t go up with him.

Hauser missed.

Clark got a pretty great shot off over Brakefield with :18 left. He really had to go high to get over a 6-8 defender but he got a good look. And when it missed, Clark was there fighting for the loose ball.

Then on the last play, Clark made a mistake: with 3.6 left, he dribbled between his legs and the ball bounced up to his groin. Presumably he was wearing a cup because it didn’t seem to slow him down.

By the time he got control again, there were two seconds left and not much time to do anything. So he shot and the ball was short. Huff had cut to the basket and actually caught and dunked it, but the clock/light went off before his hands were on the ball.

At first, we thought Clark changed to a pass but it does look more like a shot.

Not much difference either way though. He came close to winning the game or putting Huff in a position to do so. It just didn’t work.

This time.

But to be down on him for this? After every remarkable thing the guy has done for his team, and at 5-8? (We’re not buying 5-9. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus but he doesn't give inches).

It’s the height of being ungrateful and not recognizing a gem when you see one.

Kihei Clark is exactly what Bennett said he was the first time he saw him play in high school: “that kid’s a winner.”

He was right then and he’s right now. That kid has been amazing and nothing but a winner. One botched play, or one bad game if you insist, can’t change that. Virginia fans should shut the hell up and thank God they have a guy like that on their side. Because you know what?

He’s not done winning yet.