“Kihei is the heart of the team, but people don’t realize that,” Diakite said. “I mean, it’s whatever. Everyone can think what they want to think, but we know how valuable the kid is to us. He does some unbelievable things. He’s still young. He’s a second year, yet they want to hold him to a higher standard like a redshirt senior.
“But that’s a good thing, I guess. That’s a good pressure. The better you get, the more pressure you have.”
Clark has embraced those pressure moments this season, particularly in recent weeks. Second-seeded Virginia (23-7) has won eight in a row, the longest active streak in the ACC, and it awaits No. 7 Notre Dame or No. 10 Boston College in Thursday’s quarterfinals in Greensboro, N.C.
Virginia has won two ACC tournament championships under Coach Tony Bennett, the most recent in 2018 at Barclays Center in New York. The other came in 2014 at Greensboro Coliseum.
The ACC tournament begins Tuesday with two first-round games, including No. 11 seed Virginia Tech (16-15) facing No. 14 seed North Carolina (13-18), which is playing on the first day after racking up the second-most losses in program history.
Against the Hokies on Feb. 26, Clark made a three-pointer with three seconds left for a 56-53 win at Cassell Coliseum that let Virginia sweep the rivalry’s regular season series.
“I’m always confident,” Clark said. “My teammates allow me to be confident. I know they trust me to make the play no matter if it’s a pass or a shot, so I just go out there and try to do my job and try to make the play.”
In Virginia’s regular season finale Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena, Clark sank a late three-pointer with 28 seconds remaining in a 57-54 win against Louisville, which had beaten the Cavaliers, 80-73, on Feb. 8 to deal Virginia its only loss over the past dozen games.
Clark even scored by backing down a defender in the post and sinking a turnaround jumper in the lane, drawing a standing ovation from the Virginia bench.
“He’s a gamer,” Cardinals Coach Chris Mack said. “I mean, look at all the plays he has made down the stretch. I have seen it since he was in AAU when he was in California. He’s a floor general. He makes his mistakes, but he doesn’t . . . put his head down. He continues to play, and he’s got some moxie, that’s for sure.”
Of all the memorable sequences in Clark’s Cavaliers career, none stands out more than last season’s run to the national championship.
During the region finals against Purdue, Clark gathered a loose ball near midcourt, spun around and delivered a pass to Diakite, whose jumper swished through as the buzzer sounded at the end of regulation, forcing overtime. Virginia went on to win, 80-75, to advance to the Final Four.
“He has that in him, and it’s big,” said Bennett, a point guard during his playing days. “What’s been on his plate this year has been a lot, again from what we lost and him having to make plays and do a lot. He’s wired that way.”
This season, with the Cavaliers lacking depth at point guard, Clark has the ball in his hands virtually the entire time he is in the game — unlike last year when he shared those duties with Ty Jerome, who left after his junior season for the NBA draft.
The results had been uneven at best during the middle portion of this season, when Clark committed at least a half-dozen turnovers in three of seven games, including a career-high nine in a 54-50 loss at Florida State on Jan. 15.
But Clark has settled in over the past six weeks, averaging four turnovers per game while averaging more minutes (37.1) than anyone else on the Cavaliers, whose rotation comprises seven players.
Clark is second on Virginia in scoring (10.8 points per game) and free throw accuracy (87.6 percent), and he ranks first in assists (5.9 per game) and steals (37).
“Kihei, he’s done it, and he continues to do it,” Bennett said before pointing to his chest. “I just can’t say enough about what’s going on inside here.”
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