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For freshman guard Kihei Clark, hustle always trumps size

Clark has been an integral piece of a well-oiled Virginia basketball machine

<p>Freshman guard Kihei Clark is averaging 25.8 minutes per game this year, defying expectations.</p>

Freshman guard Kihei Clark is averaging 25.8 minutes per game this year, defying expectations.

With 5:35 left in the game, then-No. 4 Virginia was tied with unranked in-state rival VCU, 43-43 — a game they were supposed to win big. But things were beginning to turn in the Cavaliers’ favor. Junior guard Ty Jerome hit a three-pointer, helping the Cavaliers come back from a five-point deficit against the Rams.

But it was not over. VCU still had a chance to stop Virginia’s momentum.

An impressive defensive stop, however, spoiled the Rams’ opportunity. VCU freshman guard P.J. Byrd encountered a defensive wall as he brought the ball up the court. The wall was 5-foot-9 freshman guard Kihei Clark.

As Byrd tried to pass half court, Clark’s stellar, pesky defense refused to let him pass, leading to a 10-second violation and momentum that carried Virginia to a 57-49 victory — all while playing with a fractured wrist.

Clark’s offensive vision and defensive relentlessness have caught the eyes of many, as he has helped the Cavaliers to a 20-1 record.

Unlike stars junior guard Kyle Guy and redshirt sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter, Clark wasn’t heavily touted coming out of high school. At the end of his junior year, Clark was rated a three-star recruit and committed to in-state UC Davis early in the process. An encounter with Virginia scouts at a Nike Elite Youth Basketball League event finally gave Clark his big chance. 

Initially, Cavalier scouts had their eyes on recruits playing against Clark’s EYBL team, the Oakland Soldiers. At the time, Clark was still committed to UC Davis, but Assoc. Coach Jason Williford and the rest of the Virginia coaching staff couldn’t help but think, “Man, this little guard is pretty good.”

Given Clark’s outstanding performances in later EYBL events — most notably the 2017 Nike Peach Jam — Clark’s family decided to open up his recruitment and decommit from UC Davis. Williford and the rest of the coaching staff saw this as a golden opportunity and began speaking to Clark and his family. 

One of Virginia’s biggest concerns was the 2,500 miles that separated Woodland Hills, Calif. from Charlottesville. Clark, however, was unfazed.

“Just being in the ACC, the best conference in the country, and Coach Tony Bennett playing at the highest level,” Clark said. “Just both those things, and the coaching staff and the players, and just the whole family, it’s really big.”

Clark immediately made his presence known not only to the coaching staff but to his fellow teammates in summer workouts. Most notably, in one summer practice, Clark’s pesky defense got into Jerome’s head, ending in Jerome hurling the ball at Clark in a moment of frustration.

“It was nothing,” Clark said about the incident. “I’m just gonna get back … and play defense, after that, it’s not going to change what I do.”

This intense dedication to defense — which Clark attributes to his dad — and being a “workaholic and [having] a high basketball IQ,” according to Williford, is what has helped Clark average 25.8 minutes per game and even start five games this season for the Cavaliers. Not only that, but veterans Jerome and Guy “recognized his talent and what he would bring to the team pretty early,” Williford said.

Therefore, in the first game of the season against Towson, Clark’s teammates were not surprised when he put in 25 quality minutes — recording four points, six assists and a steal. 

Moreover, it certainly didn’t surprise Clark. Coming into the season, Clark was emphatic about his determination.

“I didn’t want to take a backseat to anybody,” Clark said. “I was just going to be ready when my number was called and produce on the floor.” 

Clark followed up his solid start to his Virginia career with starts and wins against then-No. 25 Wisconsin in the Battle 4 Atlantis Finals and then-No. 24 Maryland in the Big Ten ACC Challenge, playing 72 out of 80 possible minutes. 

His first year, however, hasn’t been without obstacles.

Clark’s first semester on Grounds came to a screeching halt against Morgan State on Dec. 3, where he suffered a wrist injury and had to wear a cast through the start of ACC play. Many were concerned that the cast would affect Clark’s quick development and lead to fewer minutes and lower offensive output. 

Again, Clark silenced the doubters. Just like in his high school basketball and summer workouts, Clark applied his grind mentality to work through adversity.

“I was going to do anything for my team to win, whether that was playing defense, handling the ball a little bit, just doing whatever my team needed me to do,” Clark said.

Once the cast was exchanged for tape, Clark played perhaps one of his most complete games to date against rival Virginia Tech at home. Right from the start, Clark got into Hokie guard Justin Robinson’s head — with his ability to, in Bennett’s words, “be a pest” on the ball — limiting the second-team All-ACC senior to nine points and under 30 percent shooting. 

“[I just tried] to play as good defense on him as I could, and he got a little frustrated, and he did push me with the ball,” Clark said. “But it is what it is, and if I can do that, that’s disrupting their offense and stopping them from doing what they want to do.”

What was probably the highlight of the game, however, was Clark’s buzzer-beater three-pointer to put the Cavaliers up 44-22 to end the first-half. The humble freshman, however, was quick to downplay his success, lauding Jerome’s no-look pass to set up the shot. 

Despite all of these accomplishments, Clark is just getting started. He is determined to learn even more and take his game to the next level.

Clark knows his game can improve. He has become an active listener, taking the time to learn from veterans like Hunter, Guy and Jerome both on and off the court.

Williford emphasizes the need for Clark to “consistently knock down shots and finish over size.” Clark has already shown significant improvement in his finishing ability this year, even against imposing big men like Duke freshman forward Zion Williamson and Virginia Tech  junior forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. 

With Clark’s heart and hustle, however, it shouldn’t be a surprise to Cavaliers fans if the little guard out of Woodland Hills, Calif. makes even bigger waves in Charlottesville in the coming months.