Kihei Clark Brings Old School Game To Virginia

Kihei Clark

Photo by Jon Golden

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Kihei Clark is a warrior, a term that Tony Bennett doesn’t just fling around loosely.

At 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, Kihei (pronounced KEY-HEY) is not an imposing figure when he steps onto the floor. Just wait, though, until he’s in your grill, and it’s your job to get the ball down the floor. You feel handcuffed, suffocated by Clark’s smothering coverage.

That’s why the freshman point guard from Woodland Hills, Calif., has averaged 27 minutes per game in Virginia’s six outings thus far, and started one game (over Braxton Key). Opponents aren’t quite prepared for what Clark throws at them.

Coach Tony Bennett, who knows a little something about being guarded by a smaller guard, said this week that Clark is the only player on the team that has exceeded expectations in this early going. No doubt, Clark will be a key player in Wednesday night’s game at Maryland in the ACC/Big10 Challenge.

While Bennett was a member of the NBA’s original Charlotte Hornets, he would often go up against Muggsy Bogues, who was only 5-3, but as pesky as they came defensively (thus a 14-year pro career).

“I had a great experience watching Muggsy,” Bennett said. “You better have something if you’re small like that or you’re not going to survive.”

Bogues had it, and when he brought it to you, you needed some kind of answer.

That’s exactly what Clark has brought to the Cavaliers’ table. Tenacity, quickness, toughness. He has disrupted several teams with his pressure, and the rumor is that Clark was a key factor in Virginia taking down defending national champion in the preseason scrimmage in October. It was that unexpected pressure that Villanova couldn’t handle.

“He’s not tall but can pressure the ball and get into you and I think he has done a nice job,” Bennett said. “His ball pressure is important. He uses his lateral quickness and he’s strong. Equally important is that he likes to [apply the pressure]. It’s in his DNA.”

Other players can tear up a defense is they get comfortable, find a rhythm. Clark is there to disrupt all that, to make a shooter uncomfortable.

“I love it,” Clark said. “Picking up full court, that’s what I do. That’s my job and I love it.”

He’s an old school guard who loves to get his teammates involved offensively, then do his thing on defense. He’s reminiscent of a few former Wahoo pressure guards from the 1980s in Othell Wilson, and brothers Bobby and Ricky Stokes, described as the “Blitz Brothers,” because of how they disrupted opponents, forced turnovers, and scored easy baskets.

Of course, that trio had 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson behind them to erase any gambles they took that didn’t work out. Clark has Jack Salt, Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff behind him as well, and while none of those measure up to Sampson, physically or performance-wise, they can still negate an opposing guard that breaks through to the paint on the Pack-Line defense.

“Kihei has good help behind him,” Bennett said.

Virginia kind of discovered Clark by accident. Bennett went to scout another guard at an AAU tournament. At that time, the Cali guard was committed to UC Davis.

“I remember that I really liked [Clark] and when I got back, I told the staff that UC Davis got a great commitment, this tough little guard who just made his team win,” Bennett recalled. “He plays like a bulldog or a warrior.”

As the summer progressed, Clark continued to play better and word came out that he had decommitted from UC Davis. Bennett didn’t react for a month or so, but then became a little curious.

Bennett knew and respected UC Davis coach Jim Les, and gave him a call.

“Jim told me, ‘Tony, [Clark] is really good,’” Bennett said. “We went out there.”

The rest is history. Bennett loved the kid’s heart, and Clark fell in love with Bennett and his coaching staff. He committed to UVa and is now about to wreak havoc on the ACC and a few nonconference foes.

“It’s what I’ve wanted to do all my life,” Clark said about playing for a major program like Virginia in a major conference. “It’s a dream, really a dream to be able to compete right away.”

Heading into the season, no one expected Clark to make that much of an impact or gain that much playing time. Even Clark.

“I wouldn’t have expected this,” the freshman said recently. “I knew I wanted to come in and contribute right away. I don’t know how to describe it…it’s crazy.

“I figured it out in a couple of scrimmages where I played a lot of minutes,” Clark said. “It was about being ready when my number was called. Part of it was being able to get in the paint, touch the floor and find shooters coming off screens.”

The other part was his tenacity with on-ball defense, terrorizing opposing guards.

“He’s got fight in him,” Bennett beamed. “He’s little, but he’s tough.”

Heading into College Park, Clark is averaging six points a game. He is shooting at a .448 clip from the field (13-29), and .438 from the arc (7-16). He knows how to get into the lane, and has recorded 16 assists in six games against only six turnovers. He has five steals and somehow has 16 defensive rebounds.

Virginia runs its players through the “beep test,” which measures one’s stamina and conditioning early in the season. As Bennett reminds, it’s kind of a battle of the mind and physical exertion.

“It’s a guts thing,” Bennett smiled.

Clark finished with the second-highest score of any Wahoo that had taken the test.

The highest?

Malcolm Brogdon. Good company, eh?

“It tests what you’ve got,” Bennett said. “Kihei is not afraid.”

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