Clark gives Leonard Hamilton & Seminoles more nightmares as UVA escapes in ACC opener

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Kihei Clark drives against FSU’s Matthew Cleveland on Saturday. (Photo by Jon Golden)

Kihei Clark has seemingly been around the ACC for so long that opposing coaches swear he’s drawing Social Security.

The fifth-year Virginia point guard has been a thorn in their saddles for so long, they collectively look forward to the day he’s gone. Such was the case of veteran Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton on his way out of the John Paul Jones Arena press room after Saturday’s closer-than-expected, 62-57 loss to Clark and the Cavaliers.

“Tell your boy, I can’t wait until he’s done,” Hamilton told a UVA team official.

Clark was trailing that official into the interview room and overheard Hamilton’s comment and smiled. Hamilton had told him the same thing a few minutes earlier in the handshake line.

“Can’t wait until you’re done.”

Clark isn’t near done. He wants to go out with a bang, kind of the way he started his career as a feisty freshman in 2018-19 when he helped Virginia capture its first national championship.

On Saturday, against an FSU team much better than its 1-9 record, Clark was, well, uh, Clark, doing what he does best.

The California Kid clocked a team-high 35-plus minutes, led third-ranked and undefeated Virginia with 18 points, drew four fouls and made 9 of 10 clutch free throws in a game where UVA needed every one of them.

Oh, and there was that one huge play with 11:56 to go in the game, after he had beaten his man down the lane for a wide-open layup for a 38-31 lead, came up with a loose ball on the other end of the floor, and moments later nearly broke FSU’s Cameron Corhen’s ankles after driving the lane, then turning and firing a pass to a wide-open Ben Vander Plas on the perimeter for a game-busting 3-pointer (see video in tweet below).

That less-than-two-minute flurry gave Virginia a 10-point bulge (41-31) during a 13-4 run, as the Cavaliers once again came roaring out of the locker room after trailing at the break (22-21).

While the inexperienced Seminoles made UVA sweat for its seventh victory of the season, Clark made 5 of 6 free throws down the home stretch, as the Cavaliers sealed the win at the foul line (see related story).

FSU actually cut Virginia’s lead to 56-54 with 17 seconds to go before Clark nailed two free throws three seconds later. The Seminoles weren’ finished, converting a basket and a foul shot to draw within 60-57 with 7.6 seconds showing and forcing everyone in sold-out JPJ — including UVA coach Tony Bennett — to remember last February’s game when FSU’s Matthew Cleveland drilled a desperation, buzzer-beating bomb that shocked the Cavaliers in a devastating loss.

Bennett actually pointed that out to Cleveland after Saturday’s close call, telling the Seminole in the handshake line that he thought it might happen again.

This time, Reece Beekman (7 points, 5 assists, 5 of 6 at the free-throw line), locked it up with two foul shots with seven seconds to play.

Still, it was the smallest guy in the arena that kept haunting Hamilton well after the dust had settled.

Kihei Clark puts a move on Cam’Ron Fletcher during Virginia’s 62-57 win over Florida State Saturday. (Photo by Jon Golden)

“[Clark’s] such a valuable addition to the team,” the ACC’s elder of coaches said. “He doesn’t lose his poise. As a little guy (Clark is listed as a generous 5-foot-10), his strength is his IQ. You know, we can talk about his dribbling skills and hitting his free throws and big shots, but he makes great decisions.

“He doesn’t really get rattled that much and he’s like a coach on the floor. He impacts every game he plays because of his high basketball IQ. I barely see him make a bad decision and that’s rare. I mean, he’s almost flawless as a point guard. He’s one of those guys that don’t come along very often.”

Clark said that getting off to a good start in the second half was critical, because allowing a team like Florida State to hang around made it even more difficult to lock up the win.

Because Florida State — which is well-coached and plays tenacious defense with a very athletic roster — switches at every position, it made it a challenge for Virginia to find shots, particularly in the first half when the Cavaliers were only 6 for 26 from the field.

In the second half, Bennett adjusted by spreading the floor more, allowing Clark and Beekman and Jayden Gardner to attack the rim more.

“They make it really hard on you when you’re on offense because they play with their length and they switch on everything,” Clark said. “So sometimes an offense isn’t really going to work and you’re going to have to spread them out and I’m trying to make a play.”

FSU came out and tried to deny Clark and UVA’s 3-point shooters as a result, and allowed the Cavaliers to be more aggressive.

No, Clark’s not done. He’s just beginning to leave his mark (tied with Joe Harris on UVA’s career games list with 135; fourth on UVA’s all-time assists list with 572; tied for 40th on UVA’s career scoring list with 1,157).

Hamilton and the rest of the ACC coaches will all pitch in and send him a nice parting gift.

Photo Gallery by Jon Golden

Team Notes

Courtesy UVA Media Relations

  • The Cavaliers have a 15-game winning streak in ACC openers and are 14-0 in ACC openers under head coach Tony Bennett
  • Virginia is 35-35 all-time in ACC openers
  • UVA is 7-0 for the first time since 2019-20
  • Virginia is 220-53 (.806), including a 4-0 mark in 2022-23, in 17 seasons at John Paul Jones Arena.
  • UVA is an ACC-leading 79-13 (.859) in league home games over the past 11 seasons
  • UVA shot 48 percent (12 of 25) in the second half
  • UVA’s 21 points and 23.1-percent shooting (6 of 26) in the first half marked season lows
  • UVA forced one shot-clock violation

Bennett Wins Watch

  • Tony Bennett (323-117, 14 seasons) needs four wins to pass Terry Holland (326-173, 16 seasons) as the all-time winningest coach at UVA
  • Bennett (392-150) needs eight wins to reach 400 career wins

Series Notes

  • Virginia is 27-28 all-time vs. Florida State, including a 17-10 mark in Charlottesville, in a series that began in 1991-92
  • UVA is 6-2 in their last eight games vs. the Seminoles at John Paul Jones Arena
  • UVA has limited Florida State to fewer than 70 points in 21 of the last 22 meetings
  • Head coach Tony Bennett is 10-11 all-time vs. Florida State

Player Notes

  • Double Figure Scorers: Kihei Clark (18), Jayden Gardner (10)
  • Clark reached double figures for the 54th time
  • Gardner reached double figures for the 106th time
  • Kadin Shedrick (4 blocks) recorded his 24th career multi-block game
  • Clark (1,139) is tied for 40th on UVA’s all-time scoring list with 1,157 points
  • Clark is tied for fourth with Joe Harris on UVA’s career games list with 135
  • Clark (3 assists) ranks fourth on UVA’s career assists list with 572
  • Ryan Dunn played a season-high 15 minutes and was 4 of 4 from the free-throw line