By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– As the principals in the most momentous play in program history, Kihei Clark and Mamadi Diakite will forever be linked in University of Virginia basketball lore. They were eager to produce more highlights in this year’s NCAA tournament, but the spread of coronavirus COVID-19 dashed those dreams, and their time as UVA teammates has ended.
Clark, who has two years of eligibility left, is back home in Los Angeles with his family. Diakite, a fifth-year senior, has signed with an agent and is training for a professional career. He’s still in Charlottesville.
“I know we’ve played our last game together, but I appreciate him as a player and as a friend,” Clark said in a phone interview. “He’s a great guy, especially off the court. I’ll definitely miss playing with him.”
The college basketball season was canceled on March 12, several hours before Virginia (23-7) was scheduled to meet Notre Dame (20-12) in the ACC quarterfinals in Greensboro, N.C. On an eight-game winning streak, the Cavaliers were one of the nation’s hottest teams heading into the postseason.
“We were very confident,” Diakite said on a videoconference last week. “We were ready to surprise the world, and we were ready to do something special … But safety first. I understand that people are dying around the world, so I understand that we had to stop it. But I was trying to be a part of something that was really special, and we were trying to make something happen again this year. To not be able to really hurts, but it is what it is, and we have to deal with it.”
Clark said: “All that work we put in for the NCAA tournament, for that to be taken away from us, it kind of stunk. But I understand why they did it. Safety first, so I hope everybody can stay safe.”
Head coach Tony Bennett’s message to the team?
“He said he was proud of us and what we accomplished,” Clark said. “He kind of felt the same way we did about not being able to finish the season, because we all thought we could do something special this year.”
Two days after the NCAA canceled its winter and spring championships, Clark flew home to California. His car and most of his possessions are still in Charlottesville, where he shares an apartment with teammates Kody Stattmann, Francisco Caffaro and Jayden Nixon.
“I’ve got a lot of clothes here,” Clark said, “I left just about everything else.”
Life in Los Angeles, as in most places in the United States, has changed dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic. California residents are under a shelter-in-place order, and Clark has rarely left his house.
“I’m locked down right now,” he said. “I pretty much can’t leave.”
Outside the family’s house is a basket, and Clark plays there with his siblings, younger brothers Nalu and Shaka. “I’ll work my brothers out and I’ll shoot,” he said. “I’m trying to not get too rusty.”
His schedule also includes online classes, to which UVA switched on March 19. “It’s just been different,” Clark said. “It’s kind of weird not being in class. The online stuff, I don’t really know how I feel about it yet. But I’m glad to be home with my brothers and my family. Just making up for lost time.”
With no live sporting events to broadcasts, TV network have been replaying memorable games, including those from last year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The Wahoos’ 10th season under Bennett ended with the program’s first NCAA title.
Watching the replays of the UVA games, Diakite said, “I felt like I was back in the moment again,” he said. “When I was playing, it hadn’t hit me yet this whole year, until now in the postseason, when I’m not doing anything. Being able to watch that, being able to realize I was part of something very special, is big for me.”
Clark said he “caught the Purdue game and the national championship game, but my family has all the games recorded, so we’ve been watching a lot of games, just reminiscing, just having withdrawal.”
The 6-9 Diakite (13.7 ppg) and the 5-9 Clark (10.8 ppg) were the only Cavaliers to average in double figures this season, though 6-8 Braxton Key (9.9) was close. In 2018-19, all three generally played supporting roles on a team led by future NBA draft picks De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy.
“I kind of just knew what my role was––bring the ball up, take an open shot––but I wasn’t going to force anything,” Clark recalled. “I tried to just perfect my role that I was given. I kind of embraced it, and I knew my time would come.”
The Cavaliers’ Big Three did not grab the spotlight in every game, of course. On this day last year, Clark teamed with Diakite on what Jerome called “the play of the century.”
It came against Purdue in the Elite Eight at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky. Leading 70-67, the Boilermakers fouled Jerome with 5.9 seconds left in the second half. He made the front end of his one-and-one, but his second shot hit the front of the rim and bounced off.
An unforgettable sequence followed. Diakite batted the ball into the backcourt, and Clark ran it down it near the near 3-point line. Clark turned around, took two quick dribbles and fired a one-handed pass to Diakite, whose 12-foot jumper barely beat the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
The Wahoos went on to win 80-75, and nine days later, in Minneapolis, they defeated Texas Tech for the NCAA title.
Clark displayed a similar flair for the dramatic this season, too, and he was often at his best late in close games. Against North Carolina, he passed to Tomas Woldetensae for the game-winning 3-pointer at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill. Against Virginia Tech, Clark buried a last-second trey to lift UVA to victory at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg.
His favorite play this season?
“To be honest, I don’t know,” Clark said. “I guess that pass to Tomas, and getting out of North Carolina with that win.” What he enjoyed most this season, however, was playing with Key and Diakite.
“All our roles were different last year,” Clark said, “so seeing them grow and show the world what they could do was pretty cool.”
After the news broke that the ACC tournament had been canceled, the Cavaliers gathered for a short practice at UNC Greensboro before heading home to Charlottesville. It included a game of knockout involving coaches, players and staffers.
“I did OK,” Clark said, laughing. “I lasted longer than Coach Bennett, but Sam ended up winning. Give credit to him. Some of the coaches jumped in, so that was fun. It was just a fun activity for everybody to get together and finish up.”
Sam Hauser, a sharp-shooting forward, sat out this season after transferring to UVA from Marquette. He’s one of the reasons Virginia, which struggled offensively this season, is expected to be better at that end of the court in 2020-21.
In three seasons at Marquette, Hauser started 97 games, made 246 treys and shot 44.5 percent from beyond the arc.
“He’s an offensive force,” Diakite said.
The Cavaliers’ returning players will include Clark, Woldetensae, Stattmann, Caffaro, Jay Huff, Casey Morsell, Justin McKoy and Chase Coleman. Hauser and Kadin Shedrick, who redshirted this season, will be eligible, too, and the program is adding Jabri Abdur-Rahim, Reece Beekman and Carson McCorkle, incoming freshmen who signed with UVA in November.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that can shoot the ball, so that’s going to be nice,” said Clark, who led the Hoos in assists and steals this season. “Guys like Sam can really spread the floor, and Jay really broke out of his shell this year and finished up great. So definitely it’ll be nice to see what next year is about.”
For now, he’s enjoying life with his family. During the school year, he’s usually only home for a few days, and that’s during the Christmas break. To be reunited with his brothers “has been great,” Clark said, “I know they appreciate me being here, and I missed them, too, so it’s been great being around them.”