Jack Salt knows what it looked like. But he didn’t intend to pull on the rim, he insists. He was merely in unfamiliar territory.
“I just jumped from really far, and I haven’t been able to do that in awhile,” Salt said.
The Virginia center clutched onto the rim after he completed a powerful two-handed dunk late in the second half of the No. 1 seed Cavaliers’ 76-56 win over No. 8 seed N.C. State in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, his body swaying long after the ball had fallen through the net.
It was one of his rare negatives Thursday. Salt scored a career-high 18 points on 7-for-8 shooting, providing key offensive production while some of the Cavaliers’ more traditional options went cold. His previous career high was 12 points.
“I’ve never had a game like this at Virginia,” Salt said.
It came at a perfect time.
Guard Kyle Guy scored 29 points, but guard Ty Jerome had just two points on 1-for-11 shooting. Guard De’Andre Hunter scored eight of his 16 points at the free-throw line, and forwards Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff scored a combined five points.
Salt, for his part, was mostly a non-factor on offense in the final third of the regular season. Playing through chronic back pain, he was held scoreless in the team’s past five games, not logging more than 13 minutes.
Thursday was different.
Salt scored three points in the first half, then kicked things into another gear in the second. About two minutes into the half, he completed an up-and-under layup, drawing a foul from N.C. State forward Wyatt Walker, who Bennett credited for being integral in N.C. State’s near upset of Virginia on Jan. 29.
“He does that all the time in practice. Sometimes we tell him not to, because he’s not as mobile,” Diakite said, chuckling.
Salt normally handles Virginia’s dirty work, and Bennett often refers to him as a giver. On Thursday, he gave in the form of putback layups and easy dunks. But he’s also quick to hand down advice to Diakite and Huff, his two understudies in the frontcourt.
“Even when I’m mad, he’s the one I get to talk to,” Diakite said. “He’ll get you right: Don’t worry about it, your time will come, he’ll always tell you.”
Diakite and Huff had shouldered the load in recent games, as Salt’s back issues relegated him to the bench. But on Thursday, with the Cavaliers facing a two-point halftime deficit, Salt, who also grabbed six rebounds and blocked one shot, reached new heights offensively. That Salt, normally a liability at the charity stripe, went 4-for-5 from the free-throw line only made the performance more special.
“Again, 18 points from Jack, we’ll take that any day,” Guy said.