CHARLOTTESVILLE — They are reverentially called “servants” in the Virginia men’s basketball program, those players who gain more satisfaction from their teammates’ prosperity than their own and who earn effusive praise from Coach Tony Bennett for contributions that frequently don’t appear on the box score.
No player, according to Bennett, has represented those foundational principles better than Jack Salt, the redshirt senior center who prefers setting rugged screens and diving for loose balls to scoring and cares not one lick about the spotlight.
The burly New Zealander, however, did allow himself to bask in a few minutes of public adulation Saturday afternoon during a pregame ceremony honoring the Cavaliers’ lone senior shortly before the second-ranked Cavaliers faced Louisville.
Then his teammates provided a rousing farewell by rallying in the final six minutes for a 73-68 triumph that secured the No. 1 seed in this week’s ACC tournament and a share of the conference regular season title with North Carolina.
Still, those accomplishments took a back seat to ensuring Salt’s final game at John Paul Jones Arena would be one he won’t soon forget.
“More important,” Cavaliers point guard Ty Jerome said. “That’s what we talked about before the game. We didn’t talk about the title. We talked about sending him off the right way because of all he’s done for this program, all he’s done for each of us, just who he is as a person.”
Jerome’s 24 points, his most in an ACC game this season, in addition to six assists and one turnover, proved significant in allowing Cavaliers players, most notably Salt, to clip the netting from one of the rims following the program’s ninth straight victory over Louisville.
Much of the announced crowd of 14,629 remained in the stands and on its feet for the net-cutting, showering Salt with another standing ovation when it became his turn to wield the scissors.
Salt started for the 103rd time in his career but played just 11:50 and went scoreless while continuing to deal with back discomfort that has limited his minutes over the past month.
“I was very happy to have all my family out here,” said Salt, who has a career scoring average of 3.3 with a single-game high of 12 points but, including his redshirt year, has been part of three ACC regular season championships and one conference tournament title. “This is the most family I’ve ever had to a game, and to walk on the floor with my mom and dad and sister, it meant a lot to me. But I’m feeling pretty good, just trying to give anything I can to this team to help us get a win.”
Before tip-off, Salt received a lengthy standing ovation after receiving a framed jersey and posing for pictures with his family, who watched the game from seats to the left of the Cavaliers’ bench.
Then he got another ovation while being introduced last among the starters. Moments later, Salt delivered a pass to Kyle Guy for a three-pointer to open the scoring.
The rest of the game unfolded far less crisply for Virginia (28-2, 16-2), which overcame uneven shooting (40.4 percent) and survived being outrebounded 40-31 in the second end of a regular season sweep of the Cardinals (19-12, 10-8).
“They’re very impressive,” Louisville Coach Chris Mack said. “They’re incredibly well coached. I thought our guys battled their tails off. We put ourselves in a position to win the game. I thought [Virginia’s] composure versus our composure the last three or four minutes probably decided the game.”
Mack in part was referring to the Cardinals managing two field goals over the final 5:45, the last purely cosmetic with eight seconds to play.
Virginia had gone ahead for good with 5:34 left in the second half after Jerome made both ends of a one-and-one. Center Jay Huff came off the bench and made a deep three-pointer from the top of the key, and Jerome added a pull-up jumper for a 68-62 lead with 3:39 to play.
The closest Louisville came the rest of the way was four points, with Virginia out-hustling the Cardinals for offensive rebounds, including a pair from reserve Braxton Key that helped run valuable seconds off the clock. Key also made a three-pointer that put Virginia ahead 61-59 with 6:21 to play.
“It was really different guys at different times,” Bennett said. “To be able to do it in this league over almost three months and 18 games, it’s really a test of consistency, and they answered the bell. If you think about that with Jack Salt and it being his fourth [regular season or ACC tournament title], and I know how challenging that is in a league like this.”
It didn’t take Salt long to deliver a sequence that has underscored his time in Charlottesville.
Early in the first half, he blocked a shot, sprinted to collect the loose ball and passed into the frontcourt, leading to an open look from three-point range from Jerome. The junior made the shot followed by another, and the Cavaliers opened an eight-point lead.
“He is a giver through and through,” Bennett said of Salt. “It’s unbelievable what he does off the court. Of course on the court how he plays, that speaks for itself, so all that stuff was flooding through my mind, and I just was really thankful.”