Clark, a 5-foot-9 sophomore, had been in similar situations time and again since becoming a starter last season during Virginia’s run to the national championship. After all, it was his assist on Mamadi Diakite’s buzzer-beating jumper in the NCAA tournament region final that may have been the signature play of that memorable run.
That play showed how Clark embraces big moments. His shot against the Hokies was just another example. There was no panic and, more important, no doubt.
“He just makes big shots,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “That’s Kihei.”
Clark clenched both fists after the ball went through, and Virginia was able to celebrate a fifth straight triumph, four of which have come by a combined nine points, and eighth in nine games to stay firmly in control of fourth place in the ACC.
The Cavaliers (20-7, 12-5) need one victory over the final three regular season games to secure a double-bye in the ACC tournament that begins March 10 in Greensboro, N.C.
“I know my teammates have confidence in me, and the coaching staff does,” Clark said, “so I shot it with confidence.”
Clark finished with 10 points and six assists to push Virginia to a series sweep of the Hokies (15-13, 6-11), who had clawed back from a 29-14 deficit to take a 51-48 lead with 3:31 left in the second half on two foul shots from redshirt freshman Landers Nolley II (team-high 13 points).
But the Cavaliers got Clark’s floater followed by a three-pointer from freshman Casey Morsell, a first-team All-Met selection last season at St. John’s, with two minutes remaining to reclaim the advantage at 53-51.
“You knew they were going to make a run,” Bennett said of the Hokies’ comeback. “They started attacking. They made some long threes. A credit to how they attacked and what they did. The three-point shot can be such a momentum swing.”
Tyrece Radford’s driving layup with 11 seconds to play drew Virginia Tech even again before Clark’s shot capped a closing sequence in which Bennett elected not to call a timeout so as not to give the Hokies an opportunity to set up their defense.
Virginia Tech went 8 for 14 from behind the arc during the second half, including three in a row to slice the margin to 40-37 with 8:20 left, bringing most of the announced crowd of 9,275, a sellout, out of its seats.
Still, the Hokies lost for the ninth time in 10 games and a fourth straight to Virginia to remain in danger of having to play on the first day of the ACC tournament as one of the bottom four seeds.
“There’s no point in getting into all of that,” Virginia Tech Coach Mike Young said when asked how his team is handling the skid. “We’ve got to find ways to win. We don’t get into feelings around here. We just played a really good, hard basketball game against a really good opponent and lost.”
A 26-11 halftime lead for Virginia featured the Cavaliers closing with an 11-2 push. Diakite scored nine of those points, making a three-pointer and a jumper, both off assists from Clark, and adding a layup in the final seconds before the buzzer sounded.
The point total was the Hokies’ fewest in a first half since they joined the ACC in 2004. Virginia Tech’s previous low in the first half was 17 three times, including in the first meeting this season against its in-state rival roughly 150 miles to the northeast.
Despite getting its share of clean looks from behind the arc before halftime, Virginia Tech went just 1 for 13, a blueprint for disaster against a defense that was yielding 52.7 points per game entering Wednesday night, by far the stingiest in the conference.
Diakite led Virginia with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting, and Braxton Key added 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, helping the Cavaliers to a 34-23 margin in that category and a 22-14 buffer in second-chance points.
“I was happy. I was excited,” said Clark, adding the last time he recalled making a shot to win a game was during his senior year in high school. “They made an incredible run in the second half. Just to be able to sneak away with a win is real big.”