Friedlander: Kihei Clark's UVA exit was 'a hard way to go,' but it doesn't tarnish his accomplishments
Kihei Clark will always be remembered for The Pass.
Whether it’s The Pass that launched his career as a freshman in 2019 or The Pass that ended it on Thursday will depend largely on 1 of 2 factors.
Either your passion for Virginia basketball or your determination on whether a glass is half full or half empty.
Take your pick.
You could go with the play that cemented his place in Cavaliers lore, the one that helped save UVA in the Elite 8 against Purdue and served as a catapult to a national championship run in 2019.
Or maybe you prefer the more recent example, the one Clark and his team’s fans would love to forget. But probably won’t for a long time to come.
Either way, it’s a stunning contrast for a player whose 74 ACC victories are the most of any player in ACC history and whose 718 assists are a school record. His eventful 5-year college career is bracketed by 1 of the greatest passes in NCAA Tournament history and 1 of the absolute worst.
It’s a gaffe that played a major role in sending UVA to a stunning 68-67 defeat at the hands of Furman and a 3rd opening-round elimination in its past 4 trips to the Dance.
All to double-digit seeds.
“That it happened and played out like that for someone who’s been so good for this program … that’s the madness of this tournament,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said afterward. “We’ve lived both sides of it. That’s a hard way to go.”
Clark never would have been in the position of having to make a game-changing play had UVA not squandered a double-digit 2nd-half lead or teammate Isaac McKneely not missed the front end of a 1-and-1 moments earlier.
But there he was, double-teamed in the corner, ball in his hands, time running out, needing to make a split-second decision.
Five years ago, he made the right one. After running down a missed free throw in the backcourt, he calmly fired a 1-handed laser to Mamadi Diakite for the buzzer-beating basket that sent the Purdue game into overtime and helped send the Cavaliers to the Final Four.
Kihei Clark made one of the best passes you will ever see in the 2019 Elite 8 that allowed Virginia to win @marchmadness. He made a horrible pass today that led to Furman's upset of UVa. I hope he's remembered a lot more for the former than the latter https://t.co/SGHM7OUMLg
— Chuck Cooperstein (@coopmavs) March 16, 2023
Things didn’t turn out quite as well this time.
With just under 10 seconds remaining and UVA nursing a 2-point lead, Clark inbounded the ball and quickly received a pass back. Immediately, he was trapped along the baseline by a pair of Furman defenders.
He could have called timeout. Unlike Michigan’s Chris Webber in that infamous 1993 national championship game against North Carolina, his team still had 1 remaining.
Instead, he elected to heave the ball as far as he could, perhaps hoping time would expire before anyone could track it down.
That’s not what happened.
CBS analyst Dan Bonner was the first to see it coming, exclaiming, “He didn’t need to do that.”
By the time he got those words out, Furman’s Garrett Hien had tracked down the errant pass and quickly fed teammate JP Pegues for the open 3-pointer that put the Paladins ahead with 2.2 seconds left.
ARE YOU SERIOUS?! 😨
FURMAN WITH THE STEAL AND 3 TO TAKE THE LEAD WITH 2.2 SECONDS REMAINING #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/fSCNKUzboq
— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) March 16, 2023
“I maybe could have thrown it to Armaan (Franklin) on the right wing,” Clark told the Associated Press in the locker room, acknowledging that he should have called timeout. “He was open. I just didn’t see. It was a good trap.”
Clark’s play was the kind you might expect from an untested freshman rather than a veteran with his resume.
But in the heat of the moment, even the most poised among us are prone to mistakes.
The difference in this case is that Clark’s came on the biggest stage in his sport, with millions watching and judging.
That’s what made his performance in the aftermath so impressive.
Instead of hiding in a training room or escaping to the team bus to avoid facing the inevitable postgame media inquisition, he remained at his locker and answered every question about the play and how it might affect his legacy in Charlottesville.
Virginia’s Kihei Clark, a fifth-year senior whose turnover in the waning seconds led to Furman’s winning shot, reacts to the team's loss. pic.twitter.com/hueRJvZXZo
— AP Top 25 (@AP_Top25) March 16, 2023
While it’s too soon to say how Clark will be remembered moving forward, his coach Tony Bennett has an idea as to which pass he’ll be most associated with once a little time passes.
“He had the most amazing assist to get us to a Final Four,” Bennett said. “We would not be in this spot without him, all the success. He’s had an unbelievable career. You always look to that last moment and there’s so many what-ifs and who-knows. In time that will fade – what he’s done, what he’s meant … I love coaching him and these guys.”