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March 10, 2018

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. — It was approaching midnight on Friday when the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers, back at their hotel across the East River in Manhattan, at last learned the identity of their opponent in the ACC championship game at Barclays Center.

At 8:30 p.m. Saturday, the top-seeded Cavaliers (30-2) will meet No. 6 seed North Carolina (25-9) for the title. Virginia ousted fourth-seeded Clemson 64-58 in the first ACC semifinal Friday night to advance to the championship game for the third time in five seasons.

That wasn’t all: With its win over the Tigers, UVA tied the school record for victories in a season.

“We definitely have bigger goals than that,” sophomore guard Ty Jerome said, “but that’s definitely a good thing to accomplish.”

Virginia’s immediate goal is to secure the third ACC tournament championship in program history. The Cavaliers won their first in 1976, under head coach Terry Holland, and their second in 2014, under Tony Bennett. UVA was ACC runner-up two years later in Washington, D.C., losing to UNC in the championship game.

This is Bennett’s ninth team at Virginia, where his record is 218-85, and its “unity is as good as any as I’ve ever coached, and those other teams had very good unity,” he said Friday night. “I think there’s some balance. We have good size, and they’re relentless the way they play, and that’s the way we have to play to be good.

“They probably could play a lot of ways, but I think this way fits this group of guys, and they have bought in and embraced it in a way that I’m thankful to have, and they’ve been a joy to coach.”

In the second ACC semifinal, North Carolina, playing for the third straight day, upset No. 2 seed Duke 74-69.

UVA and UNC met once during the regular season, on Jan. 6. The ‘Hoos led by seven at halftime and defeated the Tar Heels 61-49 at John Paul Jones Arena.

“I’ll say that we’ve got to play a heck of a lot better,” Carolina head coach Roy Williams told reporters early Saturday.

“Guys, they’re the No. 1 team in the country. They are the No. 1 team unanimously, and they beat us by 77 points or whatever it was. So we’ve got to go in there and try to play the perfect game. If we try to play the perfect game and play as close as we can possibly play to that, then we’ll have a chance to win. There’s nobody that has more respect and admiration for the way another coach coaches than what I feel for Tony Bennett. I’m serious.”

With a 17-1 record in league play, the Cavaliers ran away with the ACC’s regular-season title, and they’ve impressed in their two wins in Brooklyn this week.

On Thursday afternoon, Virginia’s standouts in a 75-58 victory over ninth-seeded Louisville included sophomore guard Kyle Guy, fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall, redshirt sophomore forward Mamadi Diakite and redshirt freshman forward De’Andre Hunter.

On Friday night, when Guy scored 15 points and Diakite and Hall added 10 apiece, another, more improbable hero emerged for the Cavaliers: center Jack Salt, whom Clemson head coach Brad Brownell called “one of their under-the-radar guys.”

A 6-10 redshirt junior from New Zealand, the left-handed Salt came in averaging 3.4 points per game. He finished with eight points — his high against an ACC team — grabbed a game-high eight rebounds, and came up with two steals.

“I’m so happy for him,” Guy said. “He works so hard at it.”

During a four-minute stretch late in the second half, Salt hit three baskets — the first on a right-handed jump hook, the second on a floater, the third on a tip-in — and saved a long pass from going out of bounds. For the game, he made 4 of 5 shots from the floor.

“Man, I’m so proud of him,” said Jerome, who had a career-best 10 assists, three steals and only one turnover.

“In the second half, he made a post move; used his right hand for the first time in his career, probably; caught a pocket pass and hit a nice little floater. They weren’t all just easy layups, and that’s a testament to his work ethic. He works every day before and after practice on his touch around the basket, his free throws. He’s such a hard worker, and to see it pay off, I’m so happy for him, and it was huge for us, too.”

The crowd at Barclays Center included several UVA players, including Nets guard Joe Harris, Evan Nolte, Assane Sene, Akil Mitchell and Will Sherrill. They saw the nation’s top- defensive team limit the Tigers to 34.7-percent accuracy from the floor. This was the same Clemson team that, on Thursday, scored 90 points in a quarterfinal win over Boston College.

“They just make you take tough shots [and] limit the easy ones,” Clemson guard Gabe DeVoe said of the Cavaliers. “They do a good job on ball screens, and they’re always in good positions.”

At the other end, Guy, a first-team All-ACC selection, dazzled from long range, making 3 of 7 shots from beyond the arc. But the Cavaliers’ fans reserved their loudest cheers for the 6-9 Diakite, who hit 5 of 8 shots from the floor, including back-to-back dunks in the second half, and Salt, who’s best known for his rugged defense and bruising screens.

Asked about the fans who chanted his name in appreciation, Salt said, “I didn’t know. They were probably just surprised I was scoring so much. It was a good game. We ground it out. It was a bit ugly at the end, but it was good to get it.”

His teammates and coaches were equally enthused about No. 33’s performance. Salt is one of the Cavaliers’ captains, along with Hall and senior forward Isaiah Wilkins, and “we’re here because of guys like that who are servants, who screen, run the floor, rebound and do whatever you ask,” Bennett said.

“He’s unbelievable. He was named a captain this year as a third-year, which we usually don’t do eligibility-wise. So he’s just all heart, and he’ll do whatever you ask. That’s the way he was raised. And that’s how it is probably in New Zealand, right? You just fight and you don’t back down.”

The Tigers (23-9) showed plenty of grit, too, but for the second time this season they came away frustrated from a game with Virginia.

In Charlottesville, UVA humbled Clemson 61-36 on Jan. 23. The rematch was more competitive, but the ‘Hoos seized control with a 16-0 run in the first half. The Cavaliers held Clemson without a field goal for the final 9:29 of the opening half.

“I just think that they do what they do, and they just keep doing it better, and they don’t ever back off,” said Brownell, one of Bennett’s best friends in the coaching fraternity. “They play like this every day. You go 17-1, it’s because you don’t have many bad days, effort and execution.”

Win or lose Saturday night, UVA is a virtual lock to be the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 overall seed. Clemson, meanwhile, is headed to the NCAAs for the first time since 2011.

“We’re obviously extremely excited about this opportunity,” Brownell said. “We’ve worked really hard, not just this season, but as a program to put ourselves in a better position to be able to do it more often. It’s hard in this league. You talk to a lot of us that aren’t at some of the blue-blood schools, and it’s a battle every time to do this, so we certainly feel thankful and blessed that it’s going to happen.”

PERSEVERANCE REWARDED: Every day in practice, the Cavaliers’ big men work on taking jump hooks with either hand.

Before Friday night, Salt had not attempted a right-handed shot in a UVA game. With about 5:50 remaining, however, he dribbled, spun and shot over his left shoulder. His basket pushed Virginia’s lead to 52-45.

“Coach Bennett was surprised,” Diakite said, “but I wasn’t surprised. I knew that [Salt] could do it.”

Salt’s roommate felt the same way.

“He’s been really, really working it as of late,” Wilkins said. “He has a good touch left, but he’s really been working his right hand. I’m happy to see him use it, and it went in, so that’s a confidence-booster.”

Salt said: “I know I’m bad with it, so I try to get a lot of reps before practices, and the coaches do a really good job of trying to get both hands going. So it’s just a credit to the coaches and all their hard work of not giving up on me and letting me keep working on it.”

When the game ended, his teammates headed to the locker room after shaking hands with the Tigers. Salt remained on the court to do a live TV interview.

“It was pretty crazy,” Salt said. “I was trying to focus as much as I could.”

Another first for him: taking part in a postgame press conference at the ACC tournament. Salt joined Bennett and Jerome at the front of a room of media members.

“He turned to me one time and said, ‘I’m not used to being up here,’ ” a smiling Jerome later told reporters in Virginia’s locker room.

THEY SAID IT: The win was UVA’s eighth straight over Clemson. Among the postgame comments at the Brooklyn Nets’ arena:

* Guy on the Cavaliers’ poise under pressure: “It’s been like that all year. We’re just a resilient bunch, and it starts with our leadership. They’ve been through the wringer, our three captains, and when you look on their faces and they’re not worried, it’s really easy to feel the same way.”

* Wilkins on Diakite’s emergence as a scoring threat: “He’s been contributing at a consistent level. I’m really happy for him.”

* Salt on the Cavaliers’ formula for success: “I don’t think we’re the team to beat. I just think we play hard every game, and we play it [possession] by possession. You start every game fresh. That’s the mentality we go with, and it’s been pretty successful so far.”

* Jerome on the unnecessary drama in the final minute, when Virginia missed 3 of 6 foul shots, including the front ends of two one-and-ones: “We gotta step to the line and close out games at the free-throw line.”

* Bennett, when asked by a reporter about fans’ reaction to the Cavaliers’ stellar defense: “You’ve never been to a game at the John Paul Jones Arena, I can tell, so we’ll have to get you a ticket so you can come. They like it when we get stops. That’s what we try to do. And that’s what our great crowd [does] — they appreciate these guys laying it on the line.”

* Bennett on Diakite, a native of Guinea: “He’s still kind of new to the game, and every experience he gets is valuable.”

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