CHARLOTTE — Not often does Jack Salt play above the rim, but Virginia’s defensive-minded center was positively soaring in Thursday afternoon’s ACC tournament quarterfinals.
Underscoring the redshirt senior’s career-high 18 points was a dunk late in the second half of the top-seeded Cavaliers’ 76-56 win against No. 8 seed North Carolina State. Salt collected a pass from Kyle Guy and launched himself toward the rim for a two-handed finish that elicited gasps from the crowd at Spectrum Center.
By necessity, according to Salt, he then clung to the rim to prevent himself from landing on his head.
Officials didn’t see it that way, assessing Salt with a technical foul with 7:35 to play, a relatively small price to pay on a day when he spurred the second-ranked Cavaliers into Friday night’s tournament semifinals, where they will face No. 4-seeded and 12th-ranked Florida State.
“Yeah, I hadn’t jumped from that far and dunked it in a while, so I was holding onto the rim,” said Salt, whose pleas to officials went unheeded. “I was pretty surprised by that call.”
Undeterred, Salt soon after completed his third three-point play of the game, expanding the lead to 62-44 with 6:17 left in the second half. That effectively capped off the ninth consecutive win for Virginia (29-2) and their second this season against the Wolfpack (22-11).
Salt scored eight points over five minutes coming out of halftime, and Cavaliers used a 19-3 run to pull away. He also went 4 of 5 from the foul line after entering this week shooting 45.9 percent.
“What made Jack special tonight was he made his free throws,” North Carolina State Coach Kevin Keatts said.
The previous career high in points for Salt was 12 on Nov. 28 in a 76-71 win at Maryland. Salt’s scoring total against North Carolina State equaled his output from his previous 10 games, including zero in each of the last five entering the quarterfinals. He came into the game averaging 3.6 points with just one double-digit scoring performance this season.
“It’s just awesome,” Virginia point guard Ty Jerome said. “Didn’t he make all three free throws [on the three-point plays]? It’s unreal. You’re just super happy to see it. You’re just super happy for him because of how selfless he is. The lift he gave us, with five guys who are threats on the court, it’s really hard to stop.”
The offensive uprising from Salt combined with Kyle Guy’s game-high 29 points, one short of matching his career high, allowed Virginia to overcome an off day of shooting from Jerome, the team’s third-leading scorer who went 1 for 11 from the field.
Jerome contributed in other ways, however, with 10 assists, five rebounds and four steals.
Guy, meantime, shot 10 of 13 including 7 of 9 from beyond the arc in the same building where the Cavaliers had their season end last year in a historic loss to Maryland-Baltimore County in the NCAA tournament round of 64. Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16.
“I think me and Jack had an advantage coming back here for media day” in October, Guy said with a smile. “You guys don’t have to apologize for asking those questions. I’m happy to answer them. It feels good to be back in the press conference room where we were last time and just like Coach said, ready to press on and move on.”
Salt provided the Cavaliers with an infusion of energy and uncommonly efficient offense in the opening minutes of the second half to trigger a comeback from a 34-30 deficit. He had a pair of three-point plays and added a putback before Guy sank a three-pointer while getting fouled.
The Cavaliers went in front to stay, 37-36, on Salt’s layup with 14:57 remaining in the second half.
“It looked like he was moving well and defending well,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said of Salt, who has been battling back discomfort in recent weeks. “We needed his physicality. That one play in the second where he hustled and made the up and under was good.
“I’ve probably been holding him back from scoring, and he’s showing it now as we get to the postseason.”
Salt played 26:35, his most since logging 28 on Jan. 19 in a 72-70 loss to Duke, the only team this season to have defeated the Cavaliers. He hadn’t played more than 13 minutes in the previous eight games.
“He’s a great giver, meaning he’s always there for people,” Cavaliers reserve forward Mamadi Diakite said of Salt, who added six rebounds, half of them offensive. “He’ll give his best, whether he plays four minutes, two minutes, 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter. He’ll just keep giving.”
With Salt resting on the bench, the later stages of the first half included careless ball security on the part of Virginia that yielded six turnovers, well more than half its season average of 9.1 per game. Last season’s ACC tournament champions entered the locker room for halftime trailing, 29-27, and in need of adjustments
The Cavaliers made them, committing just three turnovers and outrebounding the Wolfpack by six in the second half.
“Yeah, I mean we were getting good looks, and we weren’t hustling on the offensive boards,” Salt said. “Coach Tony said we only had one offensive rebound [in the first half], so we had to pick that up. I tried to do a little bit of that, and the other guys rallied and did a really good job.”