LOUISVILLE — Kihei Clark is assured of being the shortest player on the court for top-seeded Virginia in just about every game. The freshman guard’s diminutive stature hasn’t prevented him from making some of the most meaningful plays in this NCAA tournament.
Generously listed at 5 feet 9, Clark hit several clutch shots, directed the offense with the expertise of a seasoned veteran and guarded with extra intensity during Thursday night’s 53-49 win against No. 12 seed Oregon in the South Region semifinals at KFC Yum! Center.
“He’s just a competitor. He’s a killer,” backcourt mate Ty Jerome said. “He has that dog in him. I tell him all the time, ‘Stay confident and do what you do.’”
If the Cavaliers (32-3) are going to beat No. 3 seed Purdue (26-9) on Saturday and advance to their first Final Four since 1984, Clark figures again to play a prominent roll, likely being tasked to defend Carsen Edwards, the Boilermakers’ prolific scoring guard.
Edwards had 29 points in Purdue’s overtime win against No. 2 seed Tennessee on Friday and leads all players remaining in the NCAA tournament in career points (182).
It’s the type of demanding assignment Clark relishes, having spent much of his career being underestimated because of his size. He even reminds Cavaliers Coach Tony Bennett of another small guard with whom he played during his NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets.
“I was fortunate to watch Muggsy Bogues the three years I was his backup in Charlotte,” Bennett said of the 5-3 point guard who played 14 seasons in the NBA with four teams, including as a rookie with the Washington Bullets. “I watched that heart and that perseverance.
“That’s something you have to have. I think that, as a player, I tried to identify with that. When you see it, you know it, and I think I know it.”
Clark’s moxie took center stage during a sluggish first half against the Ducks. Virginia was trailing by six before Clark helped spark a 16-4 run with a pair of three-pointers and two assists.
His first assist resulted in Jerome’s three-pointer. The next was a no-look pass in the lane, delivered to Mamadi Diakite through a tight window. Diakite finished with a two-handed dunk that brought Virginia fans out of their seats.
“Just trying to make plays when I can,” Clark said, “and when I get the open shot, just get ready to take it.”
Clark finished with 12 points, six assists and four rebounds. He made 3 of 8 three-pointers and even got into the lane for a floater in the second half over the outstretched arms of much taller defenders. His final point came on a free throw that produced the final margin.
Also significant was Clark’s defense on Ducks point guard Payton Pritchard. The junior came in averaging 19 points over his previous five games but was held to 11 points on 3-for-12 shooting.
“He’s been tremendous all year, especially as of late, really heating up the ball and keeping guys in front,” Cavaliers junior guard Kyle Guy said of Clark. “He did a great job on a tremendous point guard in Payton and knocked down timely shots. When he was going to the free throw line, we told him to ice it.”
Bennett got his first glimpses of Clark’s poise during the Cavaliers’ Thanksgiving break trip to the Bahamas for the Battle for Atlantis tournament.
Virginia beat Wisconsin for the tournament championship, 53-46, in the last of three games in as many days. Clark played 37 minutes vs. the Badgers without a turnover and had just four turnovers in the tournament.
He hasn’t committed more than three turnovers in the past 14 games, including going five straight in that stretch with zero.
“Definitely gained confidence over the year,” said Clark, who in line with Bennett’s coaching philosophy, delights most in drawing charges. “I feel like getting as many games as I can under my belt, I think that’s helped prepare me for [Purdue]."
Another benefit to Clark’s ascension has been allowing Jerome to play off the ball with greater frequency, giving him more scoring opportunities. Clark and Jerome are both capable ballhandlers, which is especially useful for Bennett when the Cavaliers face full-court pressure.
Oregon attempted to press the Cavaliers on Friday, but Virginia was unfazed. The Cavaliers committed just eight turnovers against the Ducks, which came on the heels of just six turnovers during a 63-51 victory over No. 9 seed Oklahoma in the round of 32 on Sunday in Columbia, S.C.
“He’s so competitive, and he’s a winner, and he’s shown that,” Bennett said. “He just makes big plays.”