Kihei Clark continues to torment opposing ACC coaches

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Game after game, opposing coaches march into a postgame press gathering and talk about how glad they will be when Kihei Clark is gone.

The fifth-year Virginia point guard has been a thorn in their saddles for a long time, and though it’s nothing personal — those coaches have a true appreciation, admiration of UVA’s leader — they’re tired of losing to him.

Wednesday night at John Paul Jones Arena followed the script when Virginia Tech coach Mike Young, whose Hokies had just lost a 10-point decision to Clark & Company, talked about how difficult it is to play against the Cavalier guard.

“He’s more explosive this year … he looks a little bigger and stronger,” Young said of Clark. “You know what regard we hold that young person in, in our camp. But, boy, he’s got a ‘slow-to-fast’ that’s wow. He’s just waiting for somebody to blink.”

When that blink comes, Clark, all exaggerated 5-foot-10 of him, explodes with an unpredictable drive down the lane or a lightning pass to an open teammate for a shot.

With the win over Tech, Clark passed Mamadi Diakite with 111 career wins, the most ever for a UVA player, which Tony Bennett joked should carry an asterisk because Clark had one more year in the program than some of the players he leapfrogged on the list.

Still, even with an extra season, Clark’s achievements are significant. He passed Duke’s Bobby Hurley for third on the ACC’s career minutes-played list (4,811) and passed Tony Laquintano for 29th on UVA’s all-time scoring list (1,278) in reaching double figures for the 61st time in his career.

For the record, Clark played almost 36 minutes against the Hokies, led all scorers in the game with 20 points on a 7-of-14 field-goal performance, including two triples, made all four free-throw attempts, posted five assists, one turnover and had a steal.

His first 3-pointer came with 7:38 to play after Tech’s Justyn Mutts had scored three-straight buckets and cut UVA’s lead to 59-55. BOOM. A 3-pointer from Clark that even Young confessed in postgame was a “big one.”

The Hokies never came any closer, as UVA rolled to its fourth win in a row.

Maybe it was just Kihei being Kihei. Maybe, he was just showing off in front of an audience that included his point-guard predecessor Ty Jerome and current Golden State Warrior teammate Steph Curry, watching from front row seats.

“Maybe a little bit,” Clark chuckled, when asked if he was inspired by the courtside guests. “But no, you try to play your game and take opportunities as they come. But obviously it gives you a little bit of extra motivation with them on the sideline.”

Jerome was on the 2019 national championship team with Clark and was among the players the present-day UVA guard acknowledged in becoming the program’s all-time games played leader.

“It’s a team award,” Clark said. “Along with all the players that I’ve played with our first year up until now. I’ve played with some great guys. It means a lot just to be in that conversation.”

Bennett, who was responsible for going after the California guard, has admired the fight, the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of Clark from the beginning. While he pointed out the fifth-year asterisk in defense of former players, Bennett would never take away anything from what Clark has accomplished.

“You look out on the court and see Ty, then you see Kihei and they’re an important part of the fabric of this program and what’s taken place, and hopefully what will continue,” Bennett said. “There’s a guy his size who doesn’t get to where he is without having a fierce side of him. He’s such a competitor and he wants to win.

“He’s done that most of his career, but he’s coachable, and it’s good to have him back for sure. I’m glad he made that decision.”

Clark took his time in announcing that he would return for an extra year, which was no surprise. He wasn’t going to the NBA and he didn’t want to leave Virginia after a mediocre season that ended in the NIT. Certainly there was more in his future.

Even Curry had to be impressed with Clark’s abilities in the win.

“Kihei took advantage of some good drives,” Bennett said of his guard. “He made some clever moves and then he hit a couple of big-time 3’s. We needed that one, which was

One of the coaches who faced Clark this season said that while the guard may not play in the NBA, he wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up coaching some day. After Wednesday night’s performance, who knows if word might trickle back to the league that this guy deserves a chance.

In the meantime, ACC coaches are going to have to tolerate facing Clark for the rest of the season before they wish him bon voyage.

“I guess it’s a compliment, they’re just tipping their hat,” Clark smiled when he was asked about coaches being tired of playing against him. “Obviously, you’re doing something right if they don’t want to play against you.”