Flung. Slung. Unsung?
Jack Salt flung himself into the air and stretched out as far as hands could reach. He slung the ball at the legs of Pittsburgh’s Michael Young where it bounced back out of bounds to give Virginia possession. Such hustle plays can sometimes be lost in the shuffle and thus become unsung moments in a win.
That certainly wasn’t the case in UVA’s 75-63 ACC Tournament win against Pitt on Wednesday night in Brooklyn, though. The Cavaliers value the drive to compete as much as anyone. So when Salt made that diving save to help re-establish momentum, it didn’t go unnoticed.
“It’s huge. Big play. He didn’t look like he had a chance at it,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “We had a couple of those plays, but those are momentum changers. I tell our guys, it’s about the heart. At this level, every possession matters, and that one mattered. I didn’t think he had a chance at it.”
Salt’s dive ignited the Cavaliers in a big way. They led 46-44 at that point in the game, but a double-digit halftime lead had dwindled, a script the Hoos have seen before this season. The Panthers climbed to within two points with a 6-2 run and possession seemed to be headed their way when Salt flew into the air and saved that ball.
Kyle Guy, waiting to check in on the sideline, pumped his fist boisterously. With the play stopped after the save bounced off Pitt, he then entered the game and knocked down a 3-pointer on the possession. That jumpstarted a 15-5 surge over the next 5:32 that essentially propelled the Hoos to victory.
The 6’11” sophomore matter of factly said he just wanted to save the ball, not the game, with the hustle play.
“I was trying to keep the play alive,” Salt told The Daily Progress. “The ball was going out and I knew it was off of – it might have been off me, I don’t remember – but I just tried to save it and luckily threw it to the dude and it bounced off him.”
— Butch Maier (@ButchMaier) March 9, 2017
The Wahoos laid it on the line tonight.
— VirginiaSportsTV (@VaSportsTV) March 9, 2017
Of course, these types of hustle plays aren’t unusual for Salt or the Cavaliers in general. Just four days earlier, Salt had brought the same energy to the show with his team leading by at least 19 points against the Panthers.
With 7:09 remaining and UVA up 39-20 on Pitt on Saturday, he grabbed an offensive rebound that led to a Ty Jerome layup. Moments later, Salt missed a shot that he tipped in for two points and a 21-point lead at the 5:46 mark. He followed that with a steal on defense and another offensive rebound that led to a Darius Thompson 3-pointer and a 24-point lead. Salt then brought down a defensive rebound.
So that adds up to 4 rebounds and 1 steal in 2:28 … in the final 8 minutes of a rout. If a guy is going to do that in a lopsided game, you can bet he’ll put give you max effort in a tournament game where you win or go home. That’s something the Wahoos know they’re getting from Salt and Isaiah Wilkins every day, not just in the spotlight of New York.
“He’s such a warrior,” Bennett said. “You asked the question about what we look for in guys that are willing to defend, and it’s just he’ll screen, he’ll rebound. He doesn’t care if he takes a shot or not. And to see him make those hustle plays – he’s been that energy. He and Isaiah are really good defensive players. They’re good help defensive players. They know who they are as players. They’re not confused what their strengths are and what we need them to do.”
Salt’s save is also emblematic of what makes the program tick under Bennett. Two things the coaching staff places a high emphasis on in recruiting and selecting players are character and competitiveness. They want players that are willing to buy in and battle to earn opportunities.
That shows up in things like a hustle play, but also in daily practice. Then there’s the little matter of defense with Virginia’s program too. It takes the same mentality to play defense at the level Bennett requires. In other words, it’s all part of the package that is leading to sustained success in Charlottesville – UVA just won its 22nd game for the sixth year in a row, a program record.
“Just you find out what kind of character they got,” Bennett said. “Anyone can play defense if they’re willing. When you recruit them, you don’t sell them a bill of goods. You say, you’re going to have to guard.”