‘Calm is contagious’: Led by level-headed veterans Salt and Guy, Virginia blows out NC State

UVA basketballOne might think that Jack Salt’s Senior Day didn’t go to plan for the big New Zealand native. After all, the fifth-year senior — the team’s only senior, moreover — played just 11 minutes. No Cavalier who saw the court registered fewer. He didn’t score, and he spent much of the contest watching the younger players he had mentored for the last several seasons, Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff, take the playing time he had owned much of his career.

But if you thought Jack Salt would ever be disappointed in a win for Virginia — much less one that clinched the ACC regular-season title — you don’t know Jack Salt.

“I think of the book The Giving Tree,” Bennett said on Saturday. “When I think of Jack, I think of that book. He is a giver through and through. It’s unbelievable what he does off the court. Of course on the court, how he plays, that speaks for itself. … [I] was just really thankful.”

On Saturday, Virginia wasn’t quite as dependent on Salt’s on-court contributions. On Thursday, though, the Cavaliers needed them more than ever.

Salt registered a career-high 18 points and grabbed six rebounds as top-seeded Virginia overcame a slow start to defeat eighth-seeded NC State 76-56 in the quarterfinal of the ACC Tournament.

“Jack understands who he is,” Bennett said Thursday. “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.”

In his 119 career games leading up to this one, Salt, a career 3.2-point-per-game scorer, had given most of his offensive contributions as an off-ball screening machine. But with his team down 31-27 early in the second half, Salt took matters into his own hands. He tracked down a long offensive rebound, turned toward the basket, took one hard left-handed dribble, two more steps and put up a reverse layup through contact from NC State’s Wyatt Walker. Salt stumbled all the way to the opposite sideline as the ball bounced high off the rim and settled into the net.

Count the bucket, and the foul. The Virginia bench erupted. Salt knocked down the ensuing free throw. Virginia was within one.

“I got the board, and he was expecting me to pass it, because that’s what I usually do when I get an offensive rebound, but I just ripped. and it was there and then had the up-and-under,” Salt said.

“That was nuts,” Huff deadpanned.

In a vacuum, it didn’t look like that would be the moment that swung the game. In fact, Wolfpack guard Markell Johnson nailed a tough three-pointer on the other end to restore his team’s four-point lead.

Rather, it proved to be a sign to come for the Virginia big man. A few possessions later, with Virginia trailing 34-32, Salt rolled to the rim off a screen, caught a perfect bounce from Ty Jerome and finished again with a foul. A career 44-percent foul shooter, Salt knocked down another free throw (he finished 4 of 5 from there) to give the Cavaliers a 35-34 lead, their first since halfway through the first half.

Buoyed by Salt’s scoring spurt — he had eight of Virginia’s first 10 points coming out of halftime — the Cavaliers didn’t look back. After taking a 37-36 lead on yet another Salt putback a few trips later, Virginia never trailed again, outscoring the Wolfpack 39-20.

Upholding his reputation as a giver, Salt, who scored 15 points in the second half alone, directed the praise toward his teammates.

“My teammates [were] finding me wide open,” Salt said. “[NC State’s players] were extending on help, and [my teammates] were being guarded by my man, so they were just finding me, and I was getting easy looks at the rim.”

On a Virginia team that has been praised for the versatility and scoring ability around Salt, the lefty big man proved that he can be part of that group as well. With Jerome struggling mightily, De’Andre Hunter quiet and Diakite and Huff ineffective much of the day, Salt and Kyle Guy had to do the heavy lifting. With Guy providing the lightning from deep with seven threes en route to 29 points, Salt thundered down low. After being outscored 16-10 in the paint in the first half, the Cavaliers won that area 16-8 in the second half.

“[Salt] was awesome on the offensive end and awesome on the defensive end, as he always is,” Jerome said.

It didn’t always look like a 20-point victory was in the cards for the ACC Tournament’s top seed. In fact, it very much looked the opposite, especially given that the Cavaliers needed overtime to beat the Wolfpack in Raleigh during the regular season and struggled once again early Thursday.

After Virginia jumped out to an 18-10 lead, NC State reeled off a 14-0 run and later took a 29-27 lead into halftime, using the same tools that kept the game close in the first matchup. Virginia turned the ball over seven times and was outrebounded 19-17 in the first half.

The Wolfpack, coming off a thrilling 18-point comeback win over Clemson on Wednesday, were simply more alert and active. The Cavaliers, playing in their first game in over four days, were slow and sluggish and, ultimately, lucky to be down just two at the break. NC State missed all eight of its three-point attempts — several of them open — in the opening 20 minutes.

“We had a couple careless turnovers and a shot-clock violation,” Bennett said. “We said: ‘Continue to tighten up the defense, but take the shots when they’re there, and just run your offense hard, and … this is tournament basketball.’ These are possession-by-possession games, and there’s a physicality that’s there, so we just kept plugging.”

But for as poorly as Virginia played in a 27-point first half, which tied its lowest-scoring half of the season, it played equally as well in a 49-point second half, its highest-scoring half in ACC play.

“I think I’ve been 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. “When we have experience, we can stay calm in these situations. 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.”

In postseason settings, finding ways to win against different opponents is vital. Against a quick, guard-heavy NC State team, Virginia used its bruising big man to hang around and, eventually, win easily.

Days after spending much of his Senior Day on the bench, Salt dominated his team’s next game. More importantly, his team, as it has so many times during his career, came out with a victory.

Virginia needed a career day from Jack Salt. In the opening game of his final postseason, he gave his team just that.

The Giving Tree, indeed.


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