Kihei’s ‘big heart’ bumps off Seminoles

By Jerry Ratcliffe

A dramatic head fake by Virginia’s Kihei Clark (0) gets FSU defender Malik Osborne off his feet (Photo by John Markon).

Kihei Clark doesn’t care that he’s 5-foot-9. Neither does Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who will readily tell you they can measure your height but they can’t measure your heart.

Clark flat-out played his butt off Monday night to ignite Virginia to a 61-56 win over Florida State, the hottest team in the nation coming into John Paul Jones Arena. For the record, UVA’s point guard put up 15 points — including a vital 7 for 7 at the free throw line — and limited his turnovers to just four in helping the Cavaliers knock off the country’s fifth-ranked team.

His presence was most noted in the second half when he scored 11 of his points when the Cavaliers built their largest lead early (five points), before they and the Seminoles leap-frogged one another until the final minute. That’s when Clark wiggled through the lane and scored on a drive to the basket for a 57-56 lead with 59 seconds to play.

Teammate Mamadi Diakite, the game’s leading scorer with 19, put UVA up by three with a pair of free throws with 13.9 seconds to go. FSU’s Wyatt Wilkes and Trent Forrest missed two shots from behind the arc in the waning seconds before Braxton Key iced it for the Cavaliers with a pair of free throws.

Florida State had lost only twice this season (early at Pitt, and at Indiana), had won 10 consecutive games coming into JPJ and was hoping to jump to 8-1 in the ACC for the first time since joining the league in 1991.

Clark hit four key free throws, including two after a Flagrant-2 foul was called on FSU’s Balsa Koprivica, who hooked the UVA guard around the neck on a breakaway toward the basket. Koprivica was ejected from the game.

Clark has been the target of some critics’ dissatisfaction with how the team has performed this season due his higher number of turnovers. Hamilton would label that as silly.

“[Clark] might be small in stature but he has the biggest heart in the ACC,” the Florida State coach said. “Guys like that have that special ‘it’ factor that you can’t really identify, but he has it.”

The smallest guy on the floor was a critical difference-maker for the Wahoos, who are now tied with Syracuse for fourth place in the league after the Orange and Virginia Tech lost Tuesday night.

Clark continued to weave his way through one of the biggest teams in the ACC, and made plays, either stretching drives or finding open teammates, or drawing fouls. Sometimes he has dribbled his way into jams underneath and turned the ball over, but against the taller Seminoles, he always seemed to have an escape plan.

“When the [FSU] bigs switched on to me, I thought we did a good job of spacing,” Clark said. “At times I tried to jump-stop but they just stuck with the shooters and weren’t really helping. There were a couple times when I drove that Braxton was able to get back-doors, which allowed us to get some easy buckets, and then late, I had the up-and-under and I knew that [FSU’s] Malik Osborne wasn’t going to jump and I was able to finish it.”

Clark may only be a sophomore, but he’s a mature one who celebrated his 21st birthday this past week, and has been through the wars, all the way to the national championship as a freshman while learning from Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.

“Sometimes size is misleading,” Hamilton said of Clark. “Sometimes when you are small and quick and fast, that has its advantages, too. He’s a very clever guy with the ball. I looked at some of the box scores and he’s playing 39 minutes. He made the plays and kept us at bay, making it difficult for us to get it out of his hands.

“He was probably the biggest factor and made the difference in who won the game. You’ve got to give him credit.”

Clark is second in the ACC in average minutes played, right at 37, trailing only Syracuse’s Elijah Hughes. The Cavalier guard is asked to do a lot on both offense and defense, and has battled through the pressure all season long.

Virginia’s gameplan was to be more aggressive on the perimeter against the Seminoles, a switch from recent meetings, and Clark was one of the keys.

“Obviously, with his size, that makes it challenging,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said about his point guard. “But I thought he was excellent today. He did the same stuff at Florida State (a four-point loss 13 days ago), but he learned from some of his errors and even some of his errors early on in the game, and he kept getting better and better.”

For Clark, it’s the only way.

“I put in the work,” he said matter-of-factly. “I know that I can finish layups, so I just keep shooting them and don’t get discouraged and play with confidence.”

That’s what ‘it’ factors do.

Comments

  1. faye farmer says:

    It was a great game..:-) and it is Tuesday night. Second paragraph in your article says Monday.

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