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A Furman miracle delivers more NCAA tournament heartbreak to Virginia

Paladins 68, Cavaliers 67

Kadin Shedrick and Virginia fell to Furman in the first round of the NCAA tournament. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
5 min

ORLANDO — For years, Virginia’s Kihei Clark has been Coach Tony Bennett’s most trusted player. In the CavaliersNCAA tournament opener against No. 13 seed Furman Thursday afternoon, the graduate guard made perhaps the most agonizingly regrettable decision of his basketball career.

With No. 4 seed Virginia protecting a two-point lead in the closing seconds, Clark was trapped near the baseline. Rather than calling a timeout, he heaved the ball across midcourt.

Paladins forward Garrett Hien collected the errant, high arcing toss and passed to JP Pegues, whose three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left dealt the Cavaliers another heartbreaking postseason loss, 68-67, at Amway Center.

Virginia’s season thus ended with another early exit in the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers (25-8), who did not earn a berth last season, have not won a March Madness game since 2019, when they captured the program’s first national championship.

“I’ve told you at the start of it how much I’ve enjoyed coaching him, how much of a warrior he is,” Bennett said of Clark. “His story is unbelievable, and this adds another chapter to it, and he can handle it. We can handle this. Sometimes thing happen, and again, I’ve said this, you get to choose how you respond.”

Highlights from the first round of the NCAA men's tournament

Clark did so by watching the play over and again on his mobile phone in the aftermath of the stunning outcome that sent Furman, which won just its second NCAA tournament game, to Saturday’s second round against No. 5 seed San Diego State.

The mood in the somber Virginia locker room was reminiscent of the last time a No. 4 seed lost to a No. 13 in the NCAA tournament in 2021. Virginia was on the short end of that result as well when it fell to Ohio, 62-58, in Bloomington, Ind.

But as he did then, Clark, the winningest player in ACC history and a starter on the national championship team, again addressed the disheartening circumstances directly after finishing with five points on 2-for-7 shooting, five assists and two turnovers against Furman.

“Couldn’t see out of it,” Clark said of his decision down the stretch. “Saw Kadin [Shedrick] down there. Just tried to throw it up. I knew they had [the] possession [arrow], did not want them to tie it up, but yeah, probably should have called the timeout. Didn’t see the ref right there.”

Shedrick led the Cavaliers with 15 points and 13 rebounds. Reece Beekman, who missed a deep three-pointer at the buzzer, added 14 on a day when Virginia shot 44.4 percent, including 2 for 12 on three-pointers, and missed nine layups, highlighting an inability to finish at the rim that plagued the Cavaliers all season.

Jalen Slawson scored a game-high 19 points with 10 rebounds for Furman (28-7), the Southern Conference tournament champion making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1980. In the second half the Paladins shot 6 of 14 (42.9 percent) from behind the arc and made all nine of their free throws.

Trailing by three with 2:33 remaining in the second half, Virginia scored seven consecutive points to take the lead. Two free throws from Hien set up the thrilling conclusion.

“All year we’ve been saying that this team just knows how to win,” Furman Coach Bob Richey said. “We knew we were going to have a great opponent in Virginia. It’s an unbelievable moment, and give all glory to God for allowing me to be able to lead it, but this is a day these players just found a way.”

A charge by the Paladins, who trailed by 12 in the second half, sparked by Slawson gave Furman its first lead at 57-54. The Southern Conference player of the year scored nine points in a row capped by the fifth-year forward’s second three-point play with 5:02 to play.

Making matters worse for the Cavaliers was top reserve Ryan Dunn getting hit in the face on a layup attempt and going to the bench for extensive treatment. The athletic 6-foot-8 freshman guard left the court with 4:24 to go and did not return.

Just when Virginia appeared poised to pull away midway through the second half, Furman reeled the Cavaliers back in courtesy of consecutive three-pointers, but moments later Mike Bothwell, the Paladins’ leading scorer, picked up a fifth personal foul with 6:25 to go.

The Paladins managed to stay within reach with a pair of three-pointers by Marcus Foster around Alex Williams’s layup to close to 44-38 with 13:30 to go in the second half, much to the delight of a large swath of purple-clad supporters filling an entire section across the court from their team’s bench.

Furman also switched to a zone defense against the ACC co-regular season champions in an attempt to protect Bothwell. Richey stuck with the defensive alignment even after the fifth-year guard fouled out because it bothered the Cavaliers.

“You know, this game is — interesting might be the word I’d use,” Bennett said. “You feel like we got it, and then all of sudden in a moment’s notice it changes at the end. That’s tough. It’s just that feeling of it’s there. I think we’re going to the second round, or whatever round we call it now, and then it’s gone. That’s a gut punch.”