MINNEAPOLIS — When media members poured into the Virginia locker room inside U.S. Bank Stadium on Thursday afternoon, most of the cameras headed straight for the lockers of De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome.
That made sense. They are the Cavaliers’ three leading scorers, clearly the team’s three stars.
At the far end of the room sat Kihei Clark, the 5-foot-9 inch freshman point guard who has averaged 4.4 points per game and 2.5 assists.
He is also the reason Hunter, Guy and Jerome were surrounded by cameras and microphones and were drinking in the atmosphere of a Final Four.
“I really thought the only thing he could do in that moment was take two dribbles and heave the ball,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said with a laugh. “To understand that he had the time and then to make the pass that he made.” Bennett paused and shook his head. “Wow.”
The play Bennett was referencing was one of the most remarkable in the history of the NCAA tournament. Without it, the Cavaliers would be home this week and Bennett would still be hearing doubters claiming his system can’t produce a Final Four team.
You’ve seen it at this point. Purdue led Virginia 70-67 with 5.4 seconds left in Saturday’s South Region final when Ty Jerome went to the free throw line for two shots. He made the first shot, leaving Bennett with a decision to make.
“I thought about telling him to miss,” he said. “If there’d been a little less time left I would have. But I had a sub [Hunter] at the table to go in if he made it so we could set up our defense. If he made it, we’d go for a steal and if we didn’t get it, foul right away and, even if they make two, we should have time to get up a shot to tie.”
Except that Jerome missed. “Play worked out just like we practiced it,” Bennett said with a wide smile.
Mamadi Diakite slipped inside to get a hand on the ball and backtap it hard toward midcourt. Clark ran it down close to the top of the key, roughly 65 feet from the basket.
“I knew there was some time,” Clark said. “I didn’t really look at the clock, I looked up the floor to see who was open. I saw Kyle [Guy] and Ty [Jerome] but Mamadi was open in the best possible place to shoot. So I just tried to get the ball to him.”
Bennett saw Jerome, a few feet from Clark, clapping for the ball. Figuring that was a better alternative than a Clark heave, Bennett said he yelled: “Throw it to Ty. We’ll get one up there.”
Fortunately, Clark didn’t hear him. Instead, he whipped a perfect one-handed pass 40 feet to Diakite, who caught and shot in one motion from 12-feet. The shot swished as the buzzer sounded. The overtime seesawed, but Virginia survived, reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1984.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people this week,” Clark said laughing. “Old friends from back home, guys I played with. I’ve gotten a lot of love for one pass.”
It was more like The Pass than one pass.
“If he puts a second hand on the ball, I don’t think the ball gets there in time,” said Jim Miller, who played on Virginia’s last Final Four team and now does color commentary for the Virginia radio network. “It had to be a perfect pass, perfectly timed, and he pulled it off.”
It was that sort of basketball sense and instinct that attracted Bennett to Clark in the first place. He loves to tell the story about being in Oakland watching the Elite Youth Basketball League two summers ago. Bennett was there to watch James Akinjo, who just finished his freshman season at Georgetown. He couldn’t take his eyes off Clark.
“Sometimes you can’t explain it,” he said. “But you know a guy is a player when you see him. I knew, just knew, Kihei was a player. I knew I wanted him.”
At that moment Clark had verbally committed to play at UC Davis. Bennett would never recruit a player who had verbally committed to someone else, and he knew, liked and respected UC Davis Coach Jim Les. But at the end of the summer, Clark announced he was decommitting. The reason was simple: He believed he could play at a higher level.
“I think I always believed I could play in one of the big-time leagues like the ACC,” he said. “After I played in the EYBL, I really believed I could do it if someone gave me a chance. Fortunately, someone did.”
The someone was Virginia. Bennett is not one of those coaches who lets height affect his judgment of a player. As a former NBA teammate of 5-foot-3 inch Muggsy Bogues, he knows how effective a talented smaller guard can be.
Even so, he hesitated when he first heard that Clark had decommitted from UC-Davis. He called Les.
“Jim told me I should go ahead and recruit him, that as far as he was concerned the kid was free and clear. Then I said to him, ‘Jim, am I crazy to think the kid can play in the ACC?’ ”
“You’re not crazy,” Les responded.
Clark is in a unique position: on the court, he’s got to be in charge, running the offense and starting the defense with his ability to pressure the ballhandler. “Reminds me of Muggsy sometimes,” Bennett likes to say.
But off the court, he’s the little brother on a veteran team. Clark and Guy have teased him in the past week about looking at each of them before opting to pass to Diakite.
“I honestly never thought about throwing the ball to either of them,” Clark said. “They were too far from the basket. Mamadi was in the best shooting position.”
When they talk more seriously about the play, Guy and Jerome — like everyone else — marvel at Clark’s cool in the moment. All agree that just about anyone on the court would have taken a third dribble and heaved a prayer in the direction of the basket.
Bennett’s teams are always clock-savvy because they frequently run the shot clock into single digits and, just as frequently, force the other team to use up all 30 seconds or close to it.
“I think because of the way we play, our guys know that they don’t need to panic when the shot clock goes under 10 seconds,” Bennett said. “They know that’s still plenty of time, that they don’t need to go, ‘Oh boy, we better get a shot up.’ Kihei certainly has that sense.”
So, was it that extra bit of clock awareness that allowed Clark to know exactly how much time he had?
“I think it was just basketball instinct,” Bennett said. “You don’t coach that sort of thing, you just sit back and realize how lucky you are when you have a player who has it.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.