Kihei Clark, the University of Virginia’s point guard for the past five years, has now lived on both ends of the March Madness spectrum. In 2019, as a freshman, Clark immortalized himself in tournament and UVA lore by making one of the headier passes in basketball history. The Cavaliers trailed Purdue by 2 points with six seconds to play in the Elite Eight. Clark’s teammate, Ty Jerome, missed a free throw, and center Mamadi Diakite tipped it to a mile away from the basket, well beyond halfcourt. Clark tracked it down and, instead of trying a no-chance heave, uncorked a long, perfect pass to Diakite with about 1.9 seconds left. The big man made the shot to force overtime. UVA won in the extra period to make the Final Four, Clark was the toast of the town, and the Hoos won a national title to avenge the worst demons in college basketball. A year before, they were the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed (UMBC) in the first round. So much of the beauty of this last month of college basketball is watching players do brilliant things in an unparalleled pressure cooker.
A darker part of the March Madness’s appeal is the chance to watch one team, maybe an underdog, capitalize on a meltdown by the opponent. Clark visited this realm on Thursday, when he played in the NCAA tournament again. Now he was a fifth-year senior, the kind of ultra-experienced veteran made possible by the NCAA’s extension of an extra year of eligibility to players who competed during the depths of the pandemic. UVA, a No. 4 seed, was in a 2-point game in the final seconds again, this time with the lead. Clark had the ball in the corner near his own basket, shielding it from a group of players on the No. 13 seed Furman Paladins. Clark is 5-foot-10 (officially). He was cornered. He had a timeout to burn but lost his poise just for a second and chucked the ball to nowhere in particular. Furman grabbed it. Another quick pass to beat the buzzer followed, and then another jumper. This one landed like a knife through UVA’s heart, ending its season and Clark’s career in about the roughest fashion possible:
This play is why the NCAA tournament is fun. Single elimination is a cruel beast in any competition, but especially one played by incredible athletes who also are college students and subject to the lapses in judgment that tend to plague college students. They can do gorgeous and perplexing things at rapid turns. UVA’s year is over because college basketball isn’t coherent enough to make any promises. Clark, in both the greatest feat of his career five years ago and the lowest moment now, embodied the full spirit of this event. It’s not just him, either. If he is the best one-player encapsulation of what March Madness gives and what it takes, then Virginia is the best program-wide illustration of the same. No program knows more about the nearly endless sadness of the tournament or the euphoria that comes when it breaks.
Clark, for his part, is pretty much exactly who you want to have on your college basketball team: a player who is really good but not good in the ways that would make his stay short. He was a three-star recruit, listed in those days at 5-foot-9. He was never going to have the NBA blowing up his phone, but he was going to have years to learn every in and out of coach Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense (a man-to-man system that puts heavy pressure on the ball) and the painfully slow halfcourt offense that goes along with it. Clark was never a huge bucket-getter, but he averaged double figures in three of his five years and was uberdependable all the while. The guy who nearly went to UC Davis became a foundational player for the most consistently great team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He became a champion. Just as it’s cool when players use the transfer portal to optimize their situations on the fly, it’s cool when a player like Clark and a program like Virginia get into such a productive half-decade relationship. In that run, Clark made one of the best plays in recent tournament history. Later he made one of the worst. Salute him, if nothing else, for being the most quintessentially college basketball player in men’s hoops.
The point guard’s story is also UVA’s story. Bennett is one of the best coaches to come through the sport in generations. He’s also put together a dazzlingly sad NCAA tournament resume over the years, which thankfully broke in dramatic fashion in the days after Clark found Diakite in 2019. UVA has been to the mountaintop, so Bennett’s postseason resume cannot possibly be that bad. But damn if it hasn’t been painful. When UVA loses in March, it’s probably going to happen against a lower-seeded team, and it’s going to be memorable. The loss to UMBC was world-historic, but it only scratches the surface. Bennett has two different NCAA losses to the same opponent, Florida, by exactly 26 points each time. At least in those cases, unlike the others, UVA was the lower seed. Three of UVA’s losses have come as a No. 1, and this one to the Paladins will live on forever in highlight montages of the wildest tournament finishes.
There’s a decent theory that UVA is susceptible to tournament upsets because Bennett runs a snail-paced offense and breaks out in hives when someone tries to score in transition. UVA is indeed one of the most deliberately paced teams in the country year in and year out, and a few of Bennett’s tournament losses (one of the 26-pointers to Florida and a 20-pointer to UMBC) have revealed a team that had no plan whatsoever to get back into a game that had broken against it. But that’s not why UVA lost a 2-point game to Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in 2014, and it’s not why a devil possessed Clark in the last few seconds against Furman. It also didn’t prevent Clark from pulling off the pass of a lifetime five years ago.
That old play will live as a bigger part of Clark’s legacy than this one. Clark’s worst pass was one more piece of postseason misery stacked on a program that has taken a lot of them. But his best one was bigger, because it spared UVA from what would undoubtedly be the saddest schneid in college hoops. Try to imagine UVA’s run of tournament losses without that 2019 title mixed in. That was the gift Clark gave his school, and his pass on Thursday was the gift players on 4-seeds sometimes give to those on 13-seeds.
Bennett knows this. “He had the most amazing assist to get us to a Final Four,” the coach was quick to say when asked about Clark after Furman. “We would not be in this spot without him, all the success, and he’s had an unbelievable career. You always look to that last moment, and there’s so many what-ifs and who knows. But in time, that will fade, and what he’s done, what he’s meant—and like I said, I love coaching him and these guys.” It wasn’t eloquent, like the loss wasn’t eloquent. But Bennett is right about how casual hoops historians will remember Clark. The sport got fuller, once upon a time, with his ecstasy. This week, it got fuller with his agony. That’s March.