CHARLOTTE – Virginia coach Tony Bennett is usually fairly reserved in his reactions, but after watching senior Jack Salt create a memorable ACC Tournament performance against NC State on Thursday, he was almost ready to break out a locker room celebration.
Salt scored a career-high 18 points to go with 6 rebounds and 1 blocked shot in UVA’s 76-56 win.
“I even joked with the guys, I think I’m going to do a haka in the locker room the way Jack played,” Bennett said.
Traditional Maori dances aside, the Wahoos had plenty of reasons for smiling about Salt’s performance. After seeing his minutes decrease in recent weeks while nursing a back injury, Salt emerged in his final ACC Tournament to play 26 minutes and made the most of it. In setting a new career scoring mark, Salt made 7 of 8 shots. That included three separate and-one plays where he scored at the rim and then converted the freebie.
The first of those old-fashioned three-point plays shook UVA from a growing slumber on offense. The Hoos had scored just 11 points over the previous 15 minutes when Salt tracked down a rare Kyle Guy miss. He gathered the ball on the sidelines near Virginia’s bench, made a little ball and shoulder fake, and then drove hard to the rim. Salt drew contact from NC State’s Wyatt Walker, absorbed the hit, and then stretched out for a reverse layup. He added a free throw that brought the Cavalier fans in attendance to life.
“I got the board and he was kind of expecting me to pass it because that’s what I usually do when I get an offensive rebound,” Salt said. “I just ripped and it was there and hit the up and under.”
The Hoos still trailed 34-32 when Salt followed up with another and-one play just more than two minutes later. This time, he took a pass from Ty Jerome, made the layup, and the ensuing free throw. That gave the Cavaliers the lead for the first time since midway through the first half. After the Wolfpack answered, Salt grabbed an offensive rebound and scored again to give UVA the lead for good.
“He gave us a great lift offensively,” Virginia’s Ty Jerome said. “That play where he hustled down the rebound and got the and-one reverse layup was a huge momentum swing. I don’t think we looked back from there. Jack was awesome today on both sides of the ball.”
Salt capped off his day with a soaring two-handed jam that led to swinging on the rim. That drew a technical foul, but like Willie Dersch in years gone by, Wahoo fans likely didn’t care. It was an exciting way for Salt to punctuate his big day. He said he hung on to the rim to prevent his momentum from carrying him into a crash to the floor.
“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 fell on my head,” Salt said. “So I was pretty surprised on that one.”
Pretty surprised might be how most observers would describe Salt’s free throw shooting on the day. He stepped to the line and made 4 of 5 free throws. Teammate Mamadi Diakite didn’t hesitate when asked about his favorite Salt plays of the day.
“The and-ones. The dunks, I always see those,” Diakite said. “He got and-ones and he made his free throws, which was very impressive. If you see it, he changed his form a little bit to sort of a one-handed shot. Coach was able to find him a comfortable spot.”
Those and-one free throws provided a huge boost from an unexpected source. With Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter both in double digits for points again, Salt’s play added a dose of scoring that made it tough for NCSU to stay attached on the scoreboard, especially when State missed 8 free throws in the second half.
“Yeah, I mean, Jack was really good, and I thought we did a really good job on him in the first half,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said. “He did a great job. He’s so big, and Jack screens and rolls and rolled to the hole, and our guys did a poor job – 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.”
Most of them fell through at the dead center of the cylinder too. He adjusted his free throw form to turn his body slightly so that his left shoulder pointed toward the rim more, a move that Anthony Gill made at one time as a Cavalier too on the right side. Turning to the side, Salt said, makes his motion feel smoother with his shoulder. Salt also removed his guide hand from the ball earlier so that he is essentially shooting a one-handed shot from 15 feet away.
Prior to Thursday’s strong showing, Salt had made 17 of 37 free throws this season (45.9%) and 54 of 122 free throws in his career (44.3%).
“Extremely satisfying,” Salt said. “I mean I work with coach a lot on trying to get my free throws right because it’s something I struggle with so just to see the ball go through the net was great.”