With overtime coming and a likely chance at history on the line, Gary Clark circled his University of Cincinnati teammates together and apologized for his early play against Purdue. He promised to raise his game in the final five minutes.
The truth is the former Clayton High School star had little reason for regret. He had already picked up his play after a timid start in his first NCAA tournament game. Nine points and seven rebounds came in the second half of a comeback that saw his Bearcats unleash an improbable rally down 7 with 48 seconds to play to force extra time.
The 6-foot-7 forward grabbed two more rebounds in overtime — finishing with a game-high 12 despite matching up against Purdue’s two 7-foot centers for much of the game — as Cincinnati won 66-65 and advanced Thursday to face unbeaten and top-ranked Kentucky with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.
Gathering his team was the latest sign of humbleness and maturity for the 20-year-old.
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“I forgot that he was a freshman,” said teammate Farad Cobb. “He’s way ahead as far as the level he plays. If Gary messes up on something, they get on him like he’s been here forever. Once again, he stepped up for us.”
Stepping up is something Clark grew accustomed to during his high school years and he’s continued at Cincinnati. The two-time Greater Neuse River Conference Player of the Year and Clayton’s all-time leader in points, rebounds and blocks was an all-rookie selection in the American Conference this season. He was the first true freshman to start a season opener at UC since Lance Stephenson in 2009. Clark started all 34 games, averaging 7.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and nearly 1 1/2 blocks a game.
Clark’s 246 rebounds rank second all-time among UC freshmen behind Danny Fortson, who went on to be an All-America selection as a junior and the 10th overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft.
“For a freshman to do what he’s done, we’ve asked him to probably do too much,” Bearcats’ interim coach Larry Davis said. “We’ve asked him from day one to be a starter and help lead us in rebounding, help lead us in scoring, and he’s been up to the task.”
Clark said the relationship he forged with Davis during his recruitment is what drew him to Cincinnati. Davis watched in-person twice, each time being brutally honest that Clark needed to learn to play harder, before offering a scholarship on his third visit when witnessing Clark’s improved effort.
While some players might have bristled at such critiques, Clark embraced it.
“I knew coming here they were going to get everything out of me, to take my game to the next level,” Clark said.
Clark recalls his high school coach Denny Medlin trying to prep him for the physical and tenacious play he’d be asked to learn at Cincinnati.
“You do know how hard they play, right?” Clark recounted his old coach’s words. “I said,‘Yes sir.’”
That style — the “Bearcat Way” as Clark called it — served Cincinnati well in Sunday’s matchup against the nation’s top team. Many opponents had been intimidated or wholly overmatched in Kentucky’s 35 straight wins this season, but Cincinnati held its ground and led 24-21 after 16 1/2 minutes of play.
In the end, Kentucky proved too much. Too much length and too much athleticism from too many high school All-America selections coming in waves to wear down UC, who shot just 24 percent in the second half of the 64-51 loss.
Clark picked up two early fouls and sat much of the first half but finished with nine rebounds and three blocks. His only points came on two free throws with 30.7 seconds left, the outcome long decided as Kentucky became first school ever to start 36-0.
Medlin said Clark’s personality has drawn a wide range of local fans that includes longtime residents, kids that saw Gary play and even many of his his high school opponents.
“Clayton has grown and it’s not such a small town anymore,” the 16-year veteran head coach at Clayton High said. “But when Gary was he here it felt like a small town again. … It’s just a good relationship, Gary and Clayton.”
Clark relished his moment on college basketball’s biggest stage. With the freshman season he’s had, it likely won’t be his last.
“In 30 years you can say you can played this team that everybody projected to go all the way in the tournament, go undefeated,” Clark said. “To be able to go match up with them and make history, it’s a great feeling.”