ORLANDO, Fla. – Kihei Clark sat in the locker room watching video on his phone, trying to figure out how Virginia could have avoided another early exit from the NCAA Tournament.
Five years to the day after losing as a No. 1 seed to 16th-seeded UMBC, the Cavaliers were eliminated in the first round as the higher-seeded team again Thursday – this time, falling 68-67 to 13th-seeded Furman.
Virginia hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since its 2019 triumph over Texas Tech for the title. Clark’s bad pass was intercepted by Garrett Hien in the closing seconds, leading to a wide-open 3-pointer that JP Pegues sank without hesitation.
Clark starred as a freshman on Virginia’s 2019 national title-winning team. His long career with the Cavaliers had a much more unsatisfying conclusion.
So, what would he have done differently?
“Call timeout, maybe could have threw it to Armaan (Franklin) on the right wing maybe,” Clark said. “He was open. Couldn’t see. It was a good trap.”
Coach Tony Bennett wasn’t surprised Clark patiently answered questions from reporters.
“This is part of the game. I’ve used this line before, but when you step between the lines, you take the good and you take the hard with it. You try to handle them both with dignity and respect,” Bennett said.
“I’ve loved coaching him in his career. He had the most amazing assist to get us to a Final Four. We would not be in this spot without him, all the success,” Bennett added. “He’s had an unbelievable career. You always look to that last moment, and there’s so many what-ifs and who knows.”
Making their first trip to the NCAA Tournament in 43 years, the Paladins (28-7) advanced to the second round in the South Region, where they will play fifth-seeded San Diego State (28-6) on Saturday. The Aztecs held off No. 12 seed Charleston 63-57.
“All year we’ve been saying that this team just knows how to win. … It’s an unbelievable moment,” Furman coach Bob Richey said.
“This game is – interesting might be the word I’d use,” Bennett said. “You feel like, we got it, we got it, and then all of a sudden in a moment’s notice, it changes at the end. That’s tough.”
Furman earned its first tournament berth since 1980 by beating Chattanooga for the Southern Conference title, capping a season-long quest to redeem itself after losing the league’s automatic berth to the Mocs in overtime on a 35-foot buzzer-beater last year.
“I couldn’t help but go back when I saw the shot in the air to a year ago. It’s just a reminder, like we said it all year, count on joy, and you don’t know timing of things. … This team has persevered, and they did it today,” Richey said. “It’s a microcosm of what they learned, and they just keep reliving the lesson and keep finding ways.”
In the aftermath of last year’s disappointment, Jalen Slawson and his best friend, Mike Bothwell, both decided to return for their fifth seasons with the Paladins. Slawson took over the game when Bothwell fouled out with just over six minutes remaining, scoring nine consecutive points to turn a 54-48 deficit into Furman’s first lead of the game, 57-54, with 5:02 to go.
Slawson, the Southern Conference player of the year, finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
“I told Mike that we weren’t going to let today be his last time putting a jersey on, and I know if roles were reversed, the same thing would have happened,” Slawson said. “It didn’t have to just be me. But the game was up there for the taking, and these guys told me they believed in me and told me I was being a little bit passive, told me to be a little bit more aggressive.”
The winning shot was Pegues’ only 3 of the game.
“As soon as I saw it go into Garrett Hien’s hands, I was like, I want the ball. I feel like those are moments I’ve created my whole life, and I feel like I’m built for,” Pegues said. “I had full belief that it was going in, and it did.”
Reece Beekman’s deep 3-pointer at the buzzer bounced off the rim and Virginia (25-8) was eliminated in the first round as the higher-seeded team for the third time in its past four NCAA tournaments. The Cavaliers were also a No. 4 seed two years ago, when they were beaten by 13th-seeded Ohio.
Kadin Shedrick led the Cavaliers with 15 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks. Beekman scored 14 and Isaac McKneely added 12.
Marcus Foster scored 14 points and Pegues and Bothwell both finished with 11 for Furman.
WHAT’S GOING ON
Pegues’ shot sent shock waves throughout the tournament.
Gradey Dick was shooting free throws late in the first half in Des Moines, Iowa, when the crowd roared, startling the Kansas freshman. Fans were reacting to the final seconds of the Furman-Virginia game being shown on the center-court video board. Dick made the first free throw, turned around and looked up at the video board to see what the commotion was about, and then sank the second. Another loud roar went up when time expired on the Furman upset, but it didn’t disrupt Kansas’ win over Howard because the teams were in a timeout.
Furman: The Paladins made six appearances in the tourney between 1971 and 1980. Their only other victory came against South Carolina in 1974. Slawson doesn’t see any reason why the Southern Conference champions can’t win again.
“This team has done a great job making history all year,” Slawson said, “so you know, Saturday is going to be another chance to make history.”