By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – This was the plan all along for University of Virginia center Jack Salt, teammate Ty Jerome said Thursday afternoon, tongue planted firmly in cheek as the junior guard fielded questions in a Spectrum Center locker room.
“We told Jack, ‘Relax all season, and when it gets to the ACC tournament, let it loose a little bit,’ ” Jerome said, smiling, “and that’s what he did today.”
UVA guard Kyle Guy made 7 of 9 shots from beyond the arc and led all scorers with 29 points Thursday, but that’s nothing new for the 6-2 junior, a third-team All-American in 2017-18. Salt is better known for blue-collar work, not eye-catching statistics.
A fifth-year senior from Auckland, New Zealand, Salt entered his final postseason as a Cavalier never having scored more than 12 points in a college game. He came to Charlotte averaging 3.6 points per game. He finished with 18 in top-seeded UVA’s 76-56 quarterfinal win over eighth-seeded NC State, hitting 7 of 8 shots from the floor and 4 of 5 from the free-throw line.
No. 33 also grabbed six rebounds and blocked a shot in his 26-plus minutes. Before Thursday, he hadn’t scored since Feb. 16, when he had two points in a win over Notre Dame.
“It was amazing,” said redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter, who added 16 points for the Wahoos. “That’s probably the best I’ve ever seen him play.”
What made the occasion particularly memorable for Salt was the presence of his mother, Maria Anstis, who’s visiting from New Zealand, in the first row behind the UVA bench.
“Family is the most important thing to me,” Salt said, “so to have my mom there today was awesome.”
Salt, who came into the tournament shooting 45.9 percent from the line, showed no ill effects from the back problems that have slowed him this season. He contributed three three-point plays – three! – to help defending champion Virginia (29-2) advance to the ACC semifinals for the fifth time in the past six seasons.
During a second half in which Virginia outscored NC State 49-27, the 6-10, 250-pound Salt had 15 points.
“I’ve probably been holding him back from scoring, and he’s showing it now as we’re getting into the postseason,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said, smiling.
In the first ACC semifinal, Virginia will meet fourth-seeded Florida State (26-6) at 7 p.m. Friday. FSU knocked off fifth-seeded Virginia Tech 65-63 in overtime in the second quarterfinal Thursday.
UVA played the Seminoles once during the regular season, defeating them 65-52 at John Paul Jones Arena on Jan. 5.
Virginia needed overtime to defeat NC State when the teams met in the regular season, and at halftime Thursday another close finish seemed likely.
The Wolfpack, fueled by a 14-0 run, led 29-27 at the break. But the ‘Hoos are not a team that panics in the face of adversity.
“I’ve saying this phrase a lot — calm is contagious — and it starts with Coach Bennett and ripples all the way down to our first-years,” Guy said. “We never really worry. We know what we need to take care of, and in the second half it was just buckling down on defense and making open shots.”
Jerome, a second-team All-ACC selection, had an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance Thursday, making only 1 of 11 attempts, but he totaled 10 assists and four steals – both game highs — and grabbed five rebounds.
“I think my assist numbers are going to be a little more inflated this game,” Jerome said. “because Kyle was making some tough shots, Dre made some tough shots, and Jack finished around the rim. When those guys are hitting shots, it’s easy for me.”
The Cavaliers went scoreless in the first two minutes of the second half, as NC State (22-11) stretched its lead to four, and they still appeared to be out of sync.
The lone senior on the UVA roster helped change that. After tracking down a long rebound of a 3-point miss by Guy, Salt dribbled in from left wing and made a reverse layup on which Wolfpack center WyattWalker fouled him. The re-energized Cavalier faithful roared when Salt completed the three-point play to make it 31-30 with 17:57 remaining.
His second three-point play followed at the 15:39 mark and put the Cavaliers up 35-34. The Wolfpack regained the lead, only to see UVA answer with a 6-0 run in which a Salt stickback preceded a four-point play by Guy, who was fouled while burying a trey from the right wing.
“We needed those,” Bennett said of what he called “X factor plays.”
Hunter said: “We don’t really depend on [Salt for such plays] on offense, so when that happened, it really kind of lifted everyone’s morale, and we just carried that through the second half.”
Salt’s final three-point play, off a pick-and-roll with Jerome, pushed the Cavaliers’ lead to 62-44 with 6:17 left.
“He rolled hard,” Jerome said. “He always sets great screens, and today he rolled to the basket and he made some tough finishes, and he made free throws. He really works on it every day. Everyone has confidence in him. We tell him, ‘Just keep going, keep screening, keep rolling, it’s going to fall.’ Today it did, and we needed it, and we’re all so happy for him, too.”
For the first time in his UVA career, Guy wore mismatched shoes, with a dark blue sneaker on his left foot and a white one on his right. His shooting exhibition against NC State gives him 238 career 3-pointers, which ranks third all-time at Virginia behind Curtis Staples (413) and Joe Harris (263).
“He played really well,” Hunter said. “I think it’s the shoes. I think that’s what really helped him today.”
Jerome said: “If he shoots like that, I’ll tell him to keep doing it.”
FACES IN THE CROWD: Among those seated near the UVA bench Thursday were Bennett’s father, Dick, and four members of the Charlotte 49ers’ basketball program who have ties to the Cavaliers: Ron Sanchez, Vic Sfera, Marcus Conrad and Katharine Palmer.
Sanchez left Virginia, where he was associate head coach, to take over the program at Charlotte last spring. For the game Thursday, he wore a Charlotte jacket and a UVA cap.
THEY SAID IT: The victory was the Cavaliers’ eighth straight over the Wolfpack. Among the comments afterward:
* NC State head coach Kevin Keatts on Guy: “The shots that he made were back-breakers. He played extremely well. I thought everybody kind of fed off of him, and he just made shots. When you look at his numbers, that’s incredible the way he played. He’s 10 for 13 from the field and 7 for 9 from [3-point range]. A lot of those we were right there. He just raised up and made some shots.”
* Bennett on Salt and Guy, who joined him at the postgame press conference: “I thought these two guys were terrific today. I even joked with the guys, I think I’m going to do a haka in the locker room the way Jack played.”
* Bennett on Salt: “He’s a relentless worker, and Jack understands who he is. He finishes when stuff is there. He gets offensive rebounds, and how he scored was, he just took what the game gave him unless there was a shot-clock situation. He’s one of the best givers I’ve ever coached. He’s just a giver, and he gave today, and obviously he gave us production on the offensive end, which was good scoring-wise.”
* Salt on the technical he received for hanging on the rim with 7:35 to play: “I haven’t jumped from that far and dunked in a while, and so I had to hold onto the rim or else I would have [fallen] on my head, so I was pretty surprised on that one.”
* Junior forward Braxton Key, who transferred from Alabama to UVA last summer, on his first ACC tournament experience: “It was good for us to have a game like that where we had to bounce back. It just showed the resiliency of this team.”
* Salt on his accuracy from the line Thursday: “Extremely satisfying. I work with [CoachBennett] a lot of on trying to get my free throws right, because it’s something I struggle with, and just to see the ball go through the net was good.”
* Keatts: “The thing that made Jack special tonight was he made his free throws, and that was tough on us because obviously any time you foul him, he hasn’t been a great free-throw shooter, but I thought he played great. I thought Kyle Guy’s performance was as good as I’ve seen this year as far as a guy playing well against us.”