It’s no secret that every team gives their best fight against Duke. A win against the Blue Devils can change the trajectory of a team’s season and feed the flame of postseason hopes. And, beyond that, who doesn’t love beating Duke?
On a cold Monday night in early February, Virginia asserted their dominance in a physical battle defined by interior scoring. With late game heroics from Sophomore Reece Beekman, the
Cavaliers celebrated as they knocked off the 7th ranked team in the country and reinvigorated the Wahoos’ postseason chances.
When I was watching that game, it felt as if UVA was playing outside of itself. As so many teams do, it seemed we were benefitting from the nervous energy that comes with playing in Cameron Indoor. And for one night, we became a tournament-worthy team that can hang with the best of ‘em.
But I was wrong. It wasn’t just one night. This IS a tournament team, and we are as good as we looked that night. The win in Durham was part of a stretch where UVA won 4 straight, 5 of 6, and notched two wins over a Quad 1 Miami team into their NCAA tournament resume. While last night’s loss at home against Duke is by no means the outcome any UVA fan wanted, I am more confident than ever in this team’s ability. Yes, a loss to Duke hurts. But keep in mind that this Duke team has only 3 losses on the season to teams that aren’t UVA.
Now, let’s get into last night’s game.
Let’s start with Kihei Clark. While Jayden Gardner has emerged as our steadiest offensive threat, there is no doubt Kihei is the heart and soul of this squad. When Kihei is playing well, the team plays well. In front of 20 of his family members that made the trip from California and Hawaii, Clark put on a show, tallying up 18 points from 6-8 beyond the arc in just the first 20 minutes of play.
After Kihei pulled up from three in a fast break scenario and drilled yet another long ball, it was clear we were witnessing a different form of Kihei Clark. Soon after, it seemed Clark was trying to do a little too much. He committed a turnover on a difficult one-handed pass from under the basket, leading to an offensive opportunity in transition for Duke.
After this error, Clark’s experience and poise shined. Starting 6-8 from three can very easily devolve into 6-12 with some overzealous shot selection. Yet, even with the hottest of hands, Clark slowed himself down, and wisely got his teammates involved with the understanding that he could not win this game on his own. Throughout the second half, Clark settled into his familiar floor general role finishing with 25 points, 6 rebounds,and 7 assists.
While Clark’s Steph Curry-like performance elated JPJ, the rest of Virginia’s first half offense was disappointing. The ‘Hoos failed to take advantage of Kihei’s offensive surge in the first half, tacking on just 7 total points to Clark’s 18. The Duke coaching staff deserves some credit in their ability to stifle Clark’s hot shooting in the second half without vacating the paint and giving us the interior advantage we had in the first matchup.
We probably can’t count on Clark to hit six threes in every game down the stretch, but it’s safe to say we can rely on Jayden Gardner’s midrange game. His turnarounds and wide variety of midrange shots with that level of consistency are unlike anything I’ve seen in JPJ since Mike Scott’s hallmark baseline turnaround. He has a unique awareness of where defenders are in the paint, and a smooth touch from anywhere between 8 and 18 feet from the basket.
After taking a brutal (albeit legal) elbow from Paolo Banchero at the end of the first frame, Gardner racked up 14 points in the second half and continued to keep UVA within striking distance of the lead. Looking ahead, Gardner will need to continue this level of production and toughness if UVA wants to reach meaningful March basketball.
The bottom line is this team is playing their best basketball heading into March. As a fan, coaching staff, and team, that is exactly what you want. A month ago, UVA winning the ACC tournament was unrealistic. After the past 6 games, I am more confident in this team than ever before. With a good draw and some shot making, this team can definitely win it all in Brooklyn.
Every game from here on out is close to a must-win. The remaining regular season games and the ACC tournament will by no means define the career of Kihei Clark. He is a national champion, part of the 1,000 point club, and one of five UVA players ever with 1,000 career points and 500 career assists. Yet, this is his team and this is his moment. We all know Clark shines in the limelight, but first he has to lead this team to it.
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