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Commentary: A talented player’s monumental mistake helps Furman achieve a March Madness miracle

Furman forward Jalen Slawson, top, and Virginia guard Kihei Clark dive for a loose ball during Furman's upset win.
Furman forward Jalen Slawson, top, and Virginia guard Kihei Clark dive for a loose ball during Furman’s upset win Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)
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It was barely noon Thursday, West Coast time, on the first day of the NCAA basketball tournament that will kidnap our attention for the rest of March and the first few days of April, when we got the ultimate reminder of why they call this March Madness.

What is, after all, psychotic and quirky about a bunch of college basketball games? Sure, there will be some exciting games, some upsets, some crazy stuff in the midst of all the hooping and hollering. But madness?

But there it was, Virginia playing Furman. Virginia was nationally ranked all year, even getting as high as No. 2. Furman hadn’t been to an NCAA tournament since Jimmy Carter was president. Virginia was seeded No. 4 in its 16-team regional, Furman No. 13. Virginia plays in the prestigious and battle-tested ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference), Furman in the little known and generally disregarded Southern Conference.

No one loves UCLA basketball more than David Singleton, the senior sharpshooter who is sure to have his teammates hyped for another NCAA tournament run.

March 16, 2023

So, when Virginia got the ball inbounds with about 10 seconds left and merely had to run out some time to protect its two-point victory, this would be a story of David almost slaying Goliath. Nothing more. Pats on the back for the Furman team. Deep exhaling for the Virginia team, which could quickly get to the scouting report of its next opponent.

That was even more of a sure thing when the ball came inbounds to Kihei Clark, Virginia’s veteran point guard. Clark, a 5-foot-10 veteran from Woodland Hills, had been there and done this so many times before. Because of the extra year of eligibility allowed by the COVID-19 wipeout year of sports, Clark was a fifth-year senior. He held ACC records in minutes played, games played and assists. When Virginia won the NCAA title in 2019, Clark saved the day in a regional final against Purdue by dashing to track down a missed free throw that bounded into the backcourt, scurrying back toward the basket and finding teammate Mamadi Diakite 10 feet from the basket. His pass got there just in time, Diakite’s shot went through with a fraction of a second left to tie the game, Virginia went on to win the game in overtime and carried on to the NCAA title. Around the campus in Charlottesville, it is known as “The Play.”

This time, Clark didn’t need to make any heroic play. He was surrounded by three frantic Furman players who probably would have fouled him. He also had a timeout left. With those options, he chose a third. He flung the ball high and as far down the court as he could, assuming apparently that the ball would stay in the air long enough for the clock to run out.

It didn’t. His fling was intercepted by a Furman player, who just had enough time to dribble back a few steps and pass to a teammate on the three-point line. The shot went up, the ball went through, and Furman won. It was a monumental mistake, made by the player least expected to ever make one.

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It was Madness. Pure insanity. With likely more to come.

UCLA is still on the fence on whether to let Adem Bona play with a left shoulder issue in the Bruins’ NCAA tournament opener against UNC Asheville or wait until the later rounds.

March 15, 2023

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