In March 2019, Kihei Clark made one of the most astute passes in NCAA tournament history to save eventual national champion Virginia.
Four years later, Clark was responsible for the exact opposite kind of March moment, a panicky gaffe in a pressure-packed moment.
Trapped along the baseline by two defenders in the final seconds of his team’s opening-round NCAA tournament game against 13th-seeded Furman on Thursday afternoon, Clark didn’t try to call a timeout, pass to an open Isaac McKneely or even throw the ball off an opponent’s leg. He instead heaved an ill-advised baseball pass downcourt in the direction of teammate Kadin Shedrick.
That decision set off a chain reaction that led to ACC co-champion Virginia becoming the first upset victim of this year’s NCAA tournament. Garrett Hien easily intercepted Clark’s pass near mid-court. Then Hien took one dribble and fed teammate JP Pegues, who was spotted up on the right wing. And then Pegues buried a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in the game to give Furman a stunning 68-67 victory.
JP PEGUES FOR THE WIN!
FURMAN UPSETS VIRGINIA!pic.twitter.com/Wi93mvUOJy
— Heat Check CBB (@HeatCheckCBB) March 16, 2023
"As soon as I saw it go into Garrett Hien's hands, I was like, 'I want the ball,' Pegues said. "I feel like those are moments I've created my whole life, and I feel like I'm built for."
Pegues’ shot clinched Furman’s second NCAA tournament victory in program history and sent the Paladins into the round of 32, where they will face either fifth-seeded San Diego State. The SoCon champion Paladins hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 43 years and hadn’t won a game in the tourney since 1974
For Virginia, the first-round exit at the hands of a double-digit seed was all too familiar. The Cavaliers famously suffered a historic loss to UMBC in 2018, becoming the first No. 1 seed to get waylaid by a No. 16. They redeemed themselves by winning a national championship the following year, only to lose to 13th-seeded Ohio in the first round in 2021.
Virginia is more vulnerable to upsets than other national powers because of the glacially slow style of play that head coach Tony Bennett favors. The Cavaliers are annually 350th or below in tempo, which means fewer possessions in a game and fewer opportunities for a favorite to separate itself from a less talented foe.
That scenario played out once again on Thursday as Virginia controlled most of the game yet led by only five at halftime and only 12 midway through the second half. Then the Cavaliers endured one of their trademark scoring droughts, and Furman seized the opportunity to rally.
Furman’s comeback bid appeared to be in jeopardy when Mike Bothwell picked up his fifth foul trying to defend Shedrick. Suddenly the Paladins were without their leading scorer down six with 6:25 to play.
"I was talking to the official when I walked back in the huddle and Bothwell had the huddle," Furman coach Bob Richey told reporters after the game. "And he said, 'We're going to find a way to win this game.' All these guys to my left and the whole locker room to my left, they just kept believing."
Without Bothwell, Furman turned to one of its other stars. Jalen Slawson, a 6-foot-7 Swiss army knife of a forward, unleashed a personal 9-0 run, sandwiching a pair of 3-point plays around a traditional 3-pointer.
Virginia still might have won had its season-long free throw issues not reappeared at the worst possible time. McKneely missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 35 seconds to go and his team ahead by three. Then, after Furman failed to score, Clark missed the first of two free throws before hitting the second to extend Virginia's lead to a seemingly insurmountable four with less than 20 seconds to play.
Cruelly for Clark, it didn't work out that way. A fifth-year senior point guard who has played 160 games for Virginia made an uncharacteristic mistake at the worst possible moment.