Down four in the second half with 18 minutes to play, Virginia fifth year senior Jack Salt tracked down an offensive rebound off of one of Kyle Guy’s two misses from three. In the corner, Salt looked up, assessed the court, and made his move. The 6-10, 250 pounder had space, driving the ball down the baseline. NC State’s Wyatt Walker came over to contest Salt, who somehow got the up-and-under shot to fall through the foul.
Salt went to the free throw line and canned it, bringing Virginia within one.
NC State would respond with a three to push the lead back to four before De’Andre Hunter connected on two free throws to make it a 34-32 Wolfpack lead with just over 17 minutes remaining in the ACC tournament quarterfinal matchup.
Cue Jack Salt. Again.
This time, Salt drew the foul on Blake Harris as he got the jump shot to fall to tie the game. Just like the previous time, he looked cool, calm, and collected at the free throw line as he put Virginia up by one.
NC State would retake the lead one final time with a layup from DJ Funderburk, but a put back of a Hunter miss from three would give Virginia the lead they wouldn’t relinquish as they cruised to a 76-56 win.
“He’s a relentless worker, and Jack understands who he is,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said of his big man from New Zealand. “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. Obviously he gave us production on the offensive end, which was good scoring-wise.”
Salt finished with a career-high 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting to go with a 4-for-5 performance at the line, six rebounds, and a block. His previous high was set earlier this season when Salt dropped 12 on Maryland in College Park.
So what does he credit for his big performance? “My teammates finding me wide open,” Salt said in his succinct manner during the post game press conference. “They were extending on help, and they were being guarded by my man so they were just finding me, and I was getting easy looks at the rim.”
Virginia’s only other meeting with NC State this season looked similar in the first half, but certainly not the second as the Wolfpack took the Hoos to overtime back in January. The Cavaliers would go on to win 66-65 in overtime in Raleigh, but Wolfpack big man Wyatt Walker had his way with Salt down low. Walker finished the game with 11 points, five offensive rebounds, and went to the line 11 times as Salt and teammates Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff struggled to contain him.
Salt, conversely, had just five points and four rebounds before fouling out in 18 minutes of action.
Before the Cavaliers hit the road for the ACC tournament, Salt expressed his desire to get a rematch with NC State, saying, “The NC State big guy [Walker] I thought kind of punk’d us a little bit, so I would like to play them again.”
This time out, Walker finished with two points, two rebounds (both defensive), and shot no free throws.
“I think I improved from last game,” Salt said when asked to assess his performance against the Wolfpack this time around. “I think he’s [Walker] a really strong player, and I have respect for his game. I thought we did a better job today keeping him off the glass and capitalizing on our opportunities.
He certainly made the most of his rematch, much to the delight of his teammates, coaches, and the numerous Virginia fans in attendance at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte.
“It was great,” redshirt second year Jay Huff said with a huge smile in the locker room after the game. “That was huge. I think it pumps everyone up...it was really fun to watch and everyone was hype.”
According to De’Andre Hunter, however, you can keep the dunks and the and-one calls. He loved the big man’s performance from the line more than anything. “I think I was the most hype when he was hitting free throws,” Hunter said post game. “More than his and-one, more than his anything. When he hit his free throws, I was just really hype because guys don’t see, but he changes the form a lot, he shoots so many at practice, so to see him make them in a game, I was just really happy and excited for him.”
Salt has worked with the coaching staff throughout the season to try and adjust his free throw shooting form, but the key is finding something that makes everyone happy. “I’m kind of stiff in my shoulder,” Salt explained. “I think I maybe lifted too much when I was younger, so it’s hard for me to get there, so turning on the side allows it to be a smoother motion.”
The lone blemish on Salt’s stellar day was the Class B technical foul called after this monster dunk:
Salt was visibly upset with the call, and after the game told the press he wasn’t trying to get the technical. “Yeah, I haven’t jumped from that far and dunked in awhile,” Salt said stoically. “I had to hold onto the rim or else I would have fallen on my head, so I was pretty surprised on that one.”
I think the Virginia faithful will forgive you on this one, Jack.
Salt and the Cavaliers are back in action Friday night as they take on Florida State at 7pm.