I spent my last post making a case that it would only be beneficial for Kihei Clark to return if he was willing to take on a much more limited role as Reece Beekman’s backup. That was one side of the coin, but for the other, I thought it would also be fun to revisit his role in the 2019 championship run. So often when discussing his value to that team, fans immediately reference THE PLAY. Rightly so. You might also get, “those threes against Oregon!” Slightly deeper cut, also very fair.
There’s a slightly more cynical group of fans out there who look at his metrics over the season, by far the worst of any of the players getting regular time (9.6 PER, behind even Jack Salt’s 14.2 and well behind Braxton Key’s 19.7), and argue that we might have had a bigger buffer in those games such that we wouldn’t have needed the heroics to win. And it’s correct that if you just look at the seasonal metrics, our best starting five would have been Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, and Jay Huff, with Braxton Key as the 6th man (side note: I do think there’s a real argument that Jay Huff was under-utilized that season which dovetails with some of the more current discussions around playing time for younger players… perhaps a topic for another time). But to this argument I say, no. Well, mostly no. I do think that CTB was late to identifying our best lineup against Texas Tech, which I’ll touch on at the end, but in all of the other games, Clark’s unique skillset contributed in huge ways whether it be throughout the game or, in the case of the Purdue game, in the most impactful moment. Specifically, I’m going to spend much of my time focusing on the Gardner-Webb, Oregon, and Auburn games – the latter two we almost certainly lose without him and the first of which would have been in much more doubt.
Some Historical Table Setting
Two of the previous three seasons prior to the national championship ended in some of the more excruciating losses in program history. Everyone remembers the UMBC game, but for most fans expectations were muted for that tournament after De’Andre Hunter’s wrist injury.
In 2016, a loaded team led by Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, and London Perrantes lost a 16 point second half lead to Syracuse in the Elite 8, primarily as the result of wilting under the pressure of the full-court press; repeatedly turning the ball over or rushing bad shots. It was uncharacteristic of a CTB-led team, and underscored the need to add more pure ball handling to the roster.
Two years later, the UMBC game happened. With Hunter out and Diakite still pretty raw, that team relied mostly on Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt for rim protection, and Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Devon Hall at the 1-3 position. This team simply was wanting for a lot of lateral quickness. Hunter’s defensive versatility had allowed them to mix and match throughout the season (and had given them a reliable scoring option outside of the guards). Without him, their inability to match up with pure quickness at the guard position, coupled with UMBC’s quality outside shot making, caught up with them. Repeatedly, UMBC’s guards (especially the tiny but lightning quick KJ Maura and ultra-scorer Jairus Lyles) would get easy penetration into the lane, allowing for a score or a kick out to their shooters at the 1-4 position. Some examples below:
They just made it look so easy. In the first clip, you see Lyles almost casually beating Guy off the dribble for the finish at the rim. In the second, you see Maura easily get into the lane off of the dribble and then pass to Jourdan Grant who, just as easily, flew by Ty Jerome. This was a plague, if you will, throughout the game.
It was within this context that Kihei Clark joined the program. Sometimes I have daydreams about him being there a year earlier to lock up KJ Maura…. Anyway, as we all know, Clark is a point guard’s point guard. He’s lightning quick, has an impeccable handle, and intuitively understands the flow of a game and how to make plays within it (see the first part of my previous post for more on this). I’m sure that a very underrated part of all of this is also that both Jerome and Guy got to practice against this skillset regularly, improving their handle against pressure and their on-ball defense against such quickness. Jerome, especially, has a great concept of defensive spacing throughout the tournament while defending smaller, quicker, ball handlers off the bounce, and Guy had some really great moments with his footwork where he was in position to take charges and/or strip the ball from an aggressive driver. That being said, though they were improved, this was not the primary skillset for either.
As the regular season progressed, CTB increasingly leaned on Clark, never playing him fewer than 20 minutes and eventually inserting him into the starting lineup for good. This was met with much hand wringing from people like yours truly who looked at the lineup efficiency metrics and questioned why we weren’t giving more run to others. Jerome and Guy were both fine ball handlers, why not add more size and scoring?
I don’t think the answer to that question is, “to give him the experience to be ready for the tournament.” We know that CTB plays the guys that he thinks gives him the best chance to win on any given night. It’s my opinion that he just wanted another ball handler and perimeter defender. A decision that was likely influenced by the program history that I mentioned above. But, I do believe that’s exactly what happened, and by the time the NCAA tournament rolled around, Kihei had a full season and two ACC Tournament games under his belt as a 30+ minute starter.
The Gardner-Webb Game
What a terrifying start to the tournament. Gardner-Webb was the potential UMBC of the 2019 tournament, not just because they played UVa, but because they were undersized, quick, and could shoot it up and down the line up. They didn’t start a player over 6’6″ and built a 14 point lead in the first half off of great ball movement, slipping the pick and roll hedge with their post players, and great outside shooting. Having just lost by 20 to another 16 seed in historic fashion, many of the same players now faced down the same prospect, accompanied by a crazy amount of pressure.
Much like the UMBC game, Jerome and Guy were having some trouble creating their offense early. Most fans remember how apparent it was that Hunter was healthy, as he took over the game in the second half en route to 23 points. Diakite also used this game as a springboard toward massively increased playing time for the rest of the tournament as he scored 17 points. But Kihei played 36 minutes this game and was basically perfectly suited for this kind of matchup. Initially he did give up a few threes when either primarily matched up or switched onto their leading scorer, 6’2″ David Efianayi, and he sat early on. But Gardner-Webb actually built a good portion of that 14 point lead with Clark on the bench. After he returned, he settled into completely shutting down their primary ball handler, the 6’0″ Jaheam Cornwall, to the tune of 2 points and 2 assists (and the points weren’t against Clark). Additionally, he saw a large chunk of time on the ultra quick 5’10” Nate Johnson off of the bench, and suffocated him as well. Basically, with the key players that offered that same quickness mismatch that UMBC exploited from the year prior, Clark was the stopper. At the height of the veterans on the team looking around like, “could this be happening again?” Clark proved to be the perfect stabilizer. Some examples:
At this point in the game there are only two minutes and thirty seconds left in the half. We are reeling but Jay Huff has given some good minutes off of the bench and his size has been a problem, helping to stabilize things on defense. We had still been running inefficient offense to this point, though, not relying nearly enough on our inside advantage. Clark runs a crisp pick and roll with Huff and finds him with a bullet pass for the easy dunk, bringing the game back to single digits. Then…
Kihei comes off of a curl to hit a contested three within the flow of the offense to bring the team within 6 just before the half, where they would finish. I don’t think I can overstate how important these two plays were, but especially this one. Clark was just coming off of a rough shooting performance against Florida State in the ACC Tournament loss where they were basically ignoring him completely around the three point line in order to help elsewhere. You wouldn’t have known it. He stepped into this one and took it with such confidence like he knew the team needed him to give them a boost in that moment. Furthermore, cutting the deficit down to 6 from 14 right before the half was a huge confidence and momentum boost. Had the team been down double digits during the break, the message and tone probably feels very different. He took momentum back for the squad, allowing them to loosen up and let their superior talent take over. Notice the score is 30-36 at this point…
That momentum did carry through the half and, not even at the four minute mark of the second half, they had already taken the lead, fueled by this play. Kihei just being Kihei coming up with a hustle steal and then finding Hunter, through traffic despite Gardner-Webb having more numbers back, to take the lead after the free throw.
This stretch – basically the last three minutes of the first half and the first four of the second, UVa completely erased their daunting deficit, got out of their heads, and took the lead – and Clark was the key catalyst in that. And then, it just got fun:
He really was just the perfect fit for this game. His quickness and ball handling letting him get into the lane with ease and actually take advantage of our huge size advantage with the oop to Diakite. Hunter’s health and Diakite’s maturation got the headlines, but Clark was the skeleton key here, providing all of the things they had lacked the year prior to solve the small ball puzzle. It’s certainly possible that they win this game without him by just forcing the ball inside, but keep in mind that that really wasn’t a big part of the offense at that time. Very rarely did they just post up a player like they later started to do with Sam Hauser and, much more often, with Jayden Gardner. That wrinkle really wasn’t part of their formula at that point. So, Clark’s playmaking really helped set the stage to get those guys involved, all the while blanking Gardner-Webb’s quickest players.
The Oklahoma Game
There isn’t as much to say about this game. We won by 12 and it felt comfortable throughout, easily the least stressful of the tournament. It was a game that felt like it could have been put away earlier than it was. I dare say that we would have won this game with most reasonable iterations of our roster playing, potentially even by a larger margin. Notably, Clark did score 9 points, though, and guarded the 6’5″ Jamal Bieniemy all game, holding him to 7. Bieniemy wasn’t much of a scorer for the Sooners typically, at around 5 per game, and the cover for Kihei couldn’t have been more different in terms of style from the previous one. Clark picked up Bieniemy full court all game and made him seem unsure of his handle throughout. There was also this little gem:
That’s a pretty sweet blow by and sneaky finish around a player 8 inches taller. But, no need to belabor the point on this game.
The Oregon Game
Often described as, “The Kihei Game,” this is the first of two games in this tournament I can confidently say with almost no doubt that UVa does not win without Kihei Clark. What jumps to most people’s minds is his clutch three point shooting, and there was that, but it was such an impactful game from him on both ends.
Let’s start off by describing his matchup. At 6’2″ Payton Pritchard was Oregon’s point guard, and the only player on the roster under 6’4″ who saw time. He’s a pro-level talent, in fact, he’s played in 68 games for the Boston Celtics this year, logging 14 minutes per and averaging 6 points per game. A legitimate quality NBA bench player with an insane handle and deep range on his shot. For the Ducks that year, he was the center and most focal point of their offense. He was basically the only facilitator on the team, the offense would run through him and he would distribute to a plethora of 6’9″ 4 and 5 star, athletic, lengthy shooters/finishers. He would also create his own offense, and took on even more of that responsibility with the 7’2″ future NBA center Bol Bol injured. Over the Ducks previous 5 games, he was averaging 19 points per game, including 20 points, 7 assists in the PAC 12 Championship game, 19 points 8 assists against #21 Wisconsin in the round of 64, and 18 points 7 assists in the round of 32 against UC Irvine. Simply put, he was on a complete tear coming into this game, as was Oregon, having won 10 games in a row.
Pritchard was Kihei Clark’s assignment for all 37 minutes he was in the game.
This is the second possession. Clark, as he would much of the game, picks up 3 quarters court. Pritchard had a great handle but Clark would get under him and bother him. On this play, he’s clearly trying to get going/into the flow of the game. They run Clark off of three pick and rolls, each well defended by both Clark and a strong hedge by either Diakite or Hunter. Having created no advantage throughout, he settles for a long three as the shot clock runs down. Look at what a nightmare that shot is, though. Clark had gotten between the screener and Pritchard and was well in his space, so he had to be mindful of his dribble as not to get it stolen; but Hunter was also there for the lengthy and hard contest. Pritchard literally has to worry about his handle and his shot being blocked at the same time and misses the shot.
This is a couple of minutes later and Virginia has built a small lead. You could just tell that Pritchard was bothered by Clark. Even though he was 5 inches taller, he didn’t play with a lot of strength and he didn’t have much outright speed. He was very much reliant on his quickness and his handle to create an advantage – but Clark getting under him was a problem. They had gone away from running the offense through him a bit, and here they try a pick and roll which was well defended by Salt until Clark could recover. From there, they’re able to generate a switch so that Clark is on the 6’9″ Paul White on the perimeter. White realizes that he has the advantage but look at how unsure of his handle he looks. He starts to try to back Kihei down all the way from just inside the three point line, and Clark contests the dribble, pushing White into a double team by Salt, and eventually creating a turnover through great off-ball defense by Jerome. Their team, in general, never looked comfortable dribbling around Clark and Pritchard was much more passive than you’d expect when defended by him.
One of the best ways to highlight this is to realize that, up until this point in the game, he hadn’t scored and Oregon just had the one three on their opening possession. Clark got one of two quick breathers (Pritchard played the entire game). This happened almost immediately:
Now Braxton Key is a great defender, an NBA player in his own right, and had all kinds of length on Pritchard. Guy was even initially on him and UVa proactively switched a ball screen to get Key on Pritchard. Pritchard sees the matchup, dribbles with the ball hard toward the corner and hits Key with a sick cross-over, finishing with the lay-up. Mind you, after playing passively after the first couple of possessions of the game, as soon as Clark went to the bench, Pritchard immediately got aggressive.
Now, so far I’ve only been talking about Clark’s defense, but this was a LOW scoring game. UVa won it, in the end, 53-49. A lot of that was great Pack Line execution and fantastic defense from Clark on their primary facilitator, which I’ll continue to highlight. But, on the flip side, Oregon was also playing suffocating defense. Their incredible length and athleticism allowed them to run this wild morphing matchup zone that would sometimes become man-to-man, would sometimes pick up full court, sometimes at half court, would sometimes spring a trap on the ball, and would always try to funnel things toward their plethora of 6’9″ shot blockers, like Kenny Wooten. Where De’Andre Hunter and Mamadi Diakite would normally have had size and athleticism advantages, they did not against Oregon, and the Duck’s length and quickness bothered Guy and Jerome as well. Here’s an example of one of the possessions with Clark on the bench.
They pick up full court, getting us out of rhythm right away. Notice how little of a threat we pose and how much size Guy is giving up when we have the ball. By the time we get the ball off of the sideline and Guy dribbles back up to initiate the offense, it’s already late in the shot clock. He eventually gets it to Jerome, who ends up making a few non-threatening dribbles prior to launching a step back three, missing the rim, and generating a shot clock violation. We’re just completely out of sync and thrown by their defense on this play.
CTB has seen enough and gets Clark back into the game. Here’s the first offensive possession with Kihei back in. He’s so much more purposeful with the ball. Once he gets it, he uses the Hunter pick to touch the paint, forces Hunter’s man to stop his dribble, and then throws a perfect bounce pass as Hunter flairs out to the three point line for the big shot. The offense immediately shifted from, “what’s the plan?” to purposeful. Additionally and not shown much through my video is how much more comfortably we handled their full court pressure with Clark on the floor and how much more Oregon respected our ability to break it. Above is what it looked like when he was out and when he was in, they mostly just showed token pressure and backed off.
Back the other way on defense now, compare this defense on Pritchard to what we just saw from Key:
Pritchard tries basically the same thing on the other side of the floor and Clark shuts his dribble down cleanly. Then they switch defensively onto Hunter, who Pritchard wants no part of, and the offense flows to the other side of the court, resulting in a turnover.
Here’s a crucial part of the game that I want to highlight. Prior to this point, Virginia had missed 15 of 16 of their last shots from the field. Not a typo. The one shot made was the Hunter three assisted by Clark that I showed above. Even though we were playing good defense, things were looking bleak on offense. And then…
Here Oregon is very unconcerned about the threat of Clark shooting and he catches and launches from well behind the line. What a confident shot and at a time where the momentum was rough. Very reminiscent of the Gardner-Webb three pointer. He then assists Jerome on another three pointer prior to the several plays below:
He chases down an offensive rebound, manipulates the defense, and hits Diakite with a great pass. Then he hits one of the most cold-blooded and memorable shots of his career (and you felt it when he stared down the Oregon bench). Lastly, he winds down the half by executing a beautiful pick and roll, running away from the double team, and ripping a laser to Diakite for the finish.
UVa was down 16-10 and closed the half up 30-22. During that span, Kihei Clark scored or assisted on all but 5 of UVa’s 20 points. Not only was he in the head of Payton Pritchard on defense, he was the lone offensive spark capable of getting anything going for the half.
And he wasn’t done:
Here we’re in the second half and Oregon is tightening the game again, having previously pulled within 3, now down 6. Look at this crazy sequence. Clark defends the pick and roll and eventually stonewalls Pritchard around the free throw line. Oregon pulls it back out and screens such that Clark is then responsible for switching onto the 6’9″ Louis King. Clark does a good job staying with King, funneling him into taking a shot fading away from Diakite’s contest and allowing Jerome to rebound on the off-side. Having just defended two pick and rolls, one on a 5 star recruit literally a foot taller than him, Clark runs back down the court, takes a transition pass, and threads a gorgeous pass of his own, leading Hunter into an easy lay-up. He was doing everything – taking over the game.
By this point, Pritchard was frustrated, and Oregon had mostly gone away from playing through him. They were finding some success through Louis King, though, and were able to tie the game.
Firstly, shout out to Diakite, who was a defensive tour de force all tournament. He defends roughly a million pick and rolls on this play. But, seriously, notice Pritchard is no longer the initial option on offense, they’re trying to get it elsewhere. Foiled, they come back to him at the end of the shot clock. Kihei’s on ball defense is so good here; shutting his angle down at every turn and forcing him into a helping Diakite, who has the length to get a hand on the shot on the way up. The defense from the whole team on that play is seriously just… chef’s kiss.
And finally we have this:
Louis King had just hit a big three to push Oregon out to a three point lead. On the very next possession, Clark reclaims momentum with this colossal answer; within the flow of the offense, and against a solid contest. No hesitation; he just let it fly in one of the most crucial moments to that point in the season. Really, from there it was just the Jerome deep three (also assisted by Kihei) that pushed us out to a 48-45 lead. From there, they held on to salt it away down the stretch.
At the end of the day, Kihei finished with 12 points and 6 assists, considerably out-pacing his averages and participating in roughly half of the team’s total points for the game. Furthermore, he held Payton Pritchard to 11 points (not all against him, either) on 3 of 12 shooting, 1-6 from three, and 4 assists – 8 points below his tournament average with about 3.5 fewer dimes, on inefficient shooting.
In a game where points were at such a premium, it’s impossible to over-state how dominant Kihei was on both ends of the court. He took their primary facilitator out of his game, gave his own offense direction, eliminated the efficacy of the press, snapped the team out of the 1-16 shooting slump to reclaim momentum, and ALSO hit the timely shots that everyone remembers.
There’s no chance they move past this game without him.
The Purdue Game
Odd that this is the game he’ll be remembered for most throughout UVa basketball history because this was his least effective. He logged a tournament-low 24 minutes. Carsen Edwards was just a tough cover… for everyone, it proved, but especially for Kihei. Just as quick but bigger, stronger, and used to firing up contested threes in front of larger defenders, Edwards was just a fire starter who got going early against Clark and didn’t look back.
Fortunately, CTB got creative with his lineups and played much more of Jack Salt this game, whose physicality bothered the 7’3″ Matt Haarms and held him to 6 points. Also fortunately, this was the game that Kyle Guy started to heat up. Personally, I think this would have been a great Jay Huff game. He gave solid minutes earlier in the tournament (really flashing against Oklahoma) and on offense his range could have helped pull Haarms away from the rim to open things up. Either way, the strategy worked and we know how things ended!
I’m not going to spend much time discussing “The Play” because the whole purpose of this post is to highlight all of the ways in which Kihei was instrumental in the title run outside of that. It’s also been on a replay cycle for most fans ever since. I will just say that Clark was the perfect person to track down that ball in that moment and probably one of only a handful of players across college basketball who, under such time pressure, would have even seen Diakite, would have even attempted that pass, and would have executed it with such precision that Mamadi would have been able to shoot a clean jumper from exactly where he caught it. The totality of the members of that list may even be just the 1. We know for a fact that both Guy and Jerome would have shot it….
The Auburn Game
Probably the most slept on part of Kihei’s tournament and easily one of his most important. Auburn was like Gardner-Webb and UMBC on steroids. They were fast, ultra-athletic, had great shooting across the lineup, but had a considerably better post presence with the number 16 overall pick in that year’s draft, Chuma Okeke.
Similar to previous match ups, Auburn was led by future NBA two-way player, the 5’11” Jared Harper. Explosive with the ball in his hands and capable of creating insane pressure on the ball, Harper had just been named Most Outstanding Player of the Midwest Region. He was coming off of a 26 point, 5 assist, 3 steal performance against Kentucky in the Elite 8 and had scored 12 of his team’s 17 points in OT. He’d gotten to and feasted at the line, going 11-11 from the charity stripe. Conversely, in the Sweet 16 against UNC, he had played the facilitator role, dishing out 11 assists.
Guess who, once again, drew him as his primary assignment?
This is the very first possession of the game and Harper tries to get going early on with a pick and roll which Diakite defends well and Clark closes quickly to reclaim. Harper has to reset and attempts to set up another, this time with the post slipping the screen and Harper trying to split the hedge. Clark, though, gets his hand on the dribble, deflecting the ball away and disrupting Harper’s rhythm again. He finally aborts the play, passing to the wing without enough time to get a shot up. Auburn’s first possession of the Final Four is a shot clock violation primarily because of the great defense of Clark.
This is literally the next time Auburn has the ball. This is such a bad shot selection. Sure, Harper has a little space, but it’s so deep and so early, and has a vibe of pressing to try to get going, especially after being foiled off the dribble last time. Much like Pritchard tried to get going early for Oregon, only to get stymied and have to play more passively, Harper did the same here.
Auburn loved to press to try to speed up the game and make things uncomfortable. But much like Oregon found out for the 37 minutes of the game Kihei was in, it’s hard to make Kihei uncomfortable handling the ball in the full court. In this clip, not only does Clark break the press, but he uses Bryce Brown’s over-pursuit and aggression against him, cutting back door off of a screen for an easy lay-up.
These are the opening possessions of the game. Process what we’re seeing here. Jared Harper has been trying to set the tone for the game through his one-on-one ability, but Kihei has ACTUALLY been the one setting the tone of the game through his sticky defense and execution of the offensive system.
Now, his half-court offense feeling limited, Harper decides to push the tempo in the open court and force a fast break:
There’s Kihei in his way again, stripping the ball. Harper’s urgency and lack of control here actually causes him to foul Hunter as well at the end of the play. This kind of play in basketball is a good signal that you’re in someone’s head. There was no real advantage here to push the way that Harper did, no numbers. He was just frustrated and trying to get something going prior to allowing the half-court defense to set and it caused him to make another mistake. Keep in mind, he was coming off of two dominant games against two blue blood programs and was likely expecting another positive matchup.
Conversely, on the other end again:
That’s just another great backdoor cut, this time by Jerome, and Kihei finds him for the easy bucket. I should take this time to highlight that it’s not like offense was coming easily for Virginia at this point, either. This was a close game and our traditional playmaking was being bothered by Auburn’s quickness and on-ball defense. Easy buckets like this through execution and vision were crucial.
If I haven’t made the parallels obvious by now, there were so many similarities between this game and the Oregon game. Both teams tried to rely heavily on a playmaking, scoring, facilitating point guard while using athleticism on defense to bother their opponents. Oregon was the superior defensive team based on their size and length, but Auburn was the superior offensive team with much more complete guard play and more options to help carry the load.
Clark offered the same impact that he did in both games. Gumming up Harper was huge and he kept the UVa offense from stalling out and settling on bad outside shots. Here’s a consecutive defensive and offensive possession while he’s out of the game. Harper is also out, so CTB seized the opportunity to rest Clark. Unfortunately, Auburn still held that superior quickness that had historically given Guy and Jerome problems:
Here the dribble penetration comes way too easily on Guy’s man and he’s able to kick for a wide open three after drawing the defender. Then, the other way, that offensive possession looks too familiar. Auburn is fronting Hunter in the post, and there’s a lot of standing around on offense from UVa with no real threat to penetrate which results in a forced three pointer at the end of the shot clock by Jerome. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, please notice how much harder it is for Auburn to initiate offense with Clark as the primary on-ball defender, and how many more options UVa has on offense when Clark is helping to helm the ship.
I can’t watch this clip without a smile on my face. This is the second half now and UVa has just retaken a slim lead. Harper is once again trying to push pace in the open court, but panics and gets sloppy with his dribble when he realizes that Kihei isn’t ceding as much ground as he expected. Clark picks his pocket clean and breaks the other way to push the lead out to three. The close up of the expression on Harper’s face on the ensuing possession is everything. He’s so frustrated at this point and tries another blow by dribble, but Clark just sticks right to him and forces him to bring it back out once again. This possession would end up in another stop.
I really like this next one. Not long later, Auburn pushes in transition, causing UVa to have to match the closest man. Diakite finds himself on Harper in the half-court:
There’s a palpable, “finally” in Harper’s body language here as he identifies the mismatch and he starts dribbling between his legs repeatedly, attempting to set up the isolation. Most teams would probably let this go and just hope that Diakite could contest Harper without fouling. This was such a smart and practiced defensive team, though. Kihei sees all of this and proactively initiates the switch back. The rotations are perfect. Rather than Diakite strictly switching with Clark, Jerome rotates up to Kihei’s man, Hunter rotates out to the corner to contest the shot, and Diakite falls back into the lane to reclaim the post and contend for the rebound. Just beautiful team rotational defense initiated by Clark identifying a weakness that needed correction and the rest of the team responding in kind.
“They feed off of Harper and he’s been stymied. It really hurts their offense.” – Bill Rafferty
Pay attention to the score and time stamps. Nothing has happened since Clark got the steal at half court and now Harper is really pressing. He backs all the way out to half court and Clark accepts the challenge, following him all the way out. It’s completely unnecessary to defend out here other than tone setting. Clark wasn’t going to give an inch and it baited Harper into trying to drive 1 on 4 with a wild attempt at a finish. Not done there, on the breakout the other way, Clark gets the ball and completely freezes his man with a hesitation dribble before exploding to the unprotected rim, drawing a foul. The ensuing free throws culminated in a solo 4-0 run from by Clark turning defense into offense.
Game still close, here’s an example of Kihei creating on offense in a way that Guy and Jerome were struggling to initiate. Classic Clark acrobatic baseline pass with crazy vision and a high degree of difficulty.
Last clip from this game I’ll show. Harper at the end of the shot clock, having had very limited success off of the bounce vs. Clark, settling for a long, airball, three. This was actually the point in the game, where Clark was creating and they were still testing him, that UVa stretched out its biggest lead. During the Auburn comeback, we got away from having Clark initiate the offense, resulting in several more bad shots and possessions, and Auburn got away from playing through Harper, feeding Bryce Brown and looking for success against Guy (which worked).
In the end, we hung on through some wild plays and some huge shots by Guy down the stretch (that three before the free throws was crazy, too). But everything Kihei touched pretty much turned to gold this game. He didn’t completely shut down Harper, how can you, but he held him to 11 points and 3 assists with only 2 free throws attempted. Furthermore, he forced Harper into 3 turnovers when the rest of the Auburn team had two altogether, one of which was that shot clock violation (also primarily forced by Clark). Offensively, Clark had 9 points, 3 assists and zero turnovers on far more efficient shooting. Simply put, he was more efficient and held a regional MOP completely in check, frustrated his game, and caused many mental mistakes.
This game was absolutely a loss without Kihei’s stellar performance.
The Texas Tech Game
This was a second bad matchup for Kihei. Tech’s guards were both 6’3″ and Matt Mooney, Clark’s primary matchup, was 200 lbs of muscle. He was confident with the ball, didn’t get bothered by Clark’s defense, and calmly executed the offense. On several occasions, he’d successfully post Clark at the elbow or shoot over him on the outside. On offense, Kihei was mostly a non-factor as we ran most of our sets through Jerome, Guy, or Hunter, all of whom were able to initiate more effectively. It’s not that Clark played poorly, it was just kind of a slow and quiet leak that Texas Tech was able to use to their advantage over the course of the game. Specifically, during their second half comeback, they started doubling the ball, leaving Clark to do so, which caused quite a few bad possessions on our end.
Eventually, CTB figured out that the Jerome, Guy, Hunter, Key, Diakite lineup was our most effective in this one, playing them down the stretch of regulation and almost the entirety of OT as we pulled away convincingly in that frame.
I talked in my last post about how Clark is often a situational player. In some matchups he thrives, in others, he struggles. It was no different in the NCAA tournament, it just so happened that the skillset that the rest of that team possessed (3 NBA quality shooters and a minimum of 2 NBA quality rim protectors) married with Clark’s skillset very well. In those three highlighted matchups above, he offered EXACTLY what the team needed while facing uniquely challenging personnel. His on-ball defense and complimentary team defense coupled with his offensive orchestration AND clutch play/shot making were massive throughout the tournament. He took two of the best players in the entire tournament off of their game entirely. And when the matchups weren’t favorable, CTB had options and a willingness to use them.
So, when waxing nostalgic about this historic run with fans and rivals alike, if anyone tries to undersell Clark’s role, or reduce his importance down to a few flashbulb moments, you know better. Feel free to regale them with the stories of his airtight defense, his momentum-swinging confidence, his savvy execution and, oh by the way, all of those iconic plays they already remember.
No matter what happens with his upcoming decision, on which my opinion is documented, I feel so thankful that Kihei joined this program and offered us such excellent play during such a crucial time. Thank you, Kihei!