COLLEGE PARK, Md.—By now, everyone knows the formula for Virginia’s basketball success: a stingy pack-line defense, controlling the tempo and key 3-point shots from Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome.
Even the best recipes can use a little seasoning, though, And Wednesday night, the fourth-ranked Cavaliers sprinkled in a heaping dash of Salt to hold off a determined Maryland team 76-71 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Sure, Virginia’s usual suspects did their part. Guy and Jerome combined for 35 points. Super sophomore De’Andre Hunter added 15, including a couple of SportsCenter-worthy dunks. And against the Terrapins’ pressure defense, the Cavaliers committed just two turnovers—both on offensive fouls.
But on a night when the Terps shot an uncharacteristic 54 percent, Virginia needed an unexpected performance from redshirt senior center Jack Salt to improve to 7-0.
Maryland sophomore center Bruno Fernando is expected to be a first-round NBA draft pick next summer. Salt, a 7-footer from New Zealand, nearly matched Fernando’s scoring (14-12) and rebounds (11-7) as the Cavaliers held on.
“He was huge,” teammate Braxton Key said after Salt’s career-high scoring night. “Jack does the dirty work, playing defense and setting screens. When he can score, it makes him a threat, and it gives us five threats on the floor.”
Salt may be the ACC’s least appreciated player—at least outside of Charlottesville—and he’d certainly be the last player chosen in a fantasy league. He entered Wednesday’s game averaging 3.0 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
But he anchors Virginia’s nationally-ranked defense, guarding the opposition’s best big man. In Virginia’s last two games, that meant going up against two future pros, Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Maryland’s Fernando.
He also sets many of the screens that free Guy for his open 3-pointers.
“He’s the most selfless guy on the team,” Guy said. “He doesn’t care about his touches. We usually get him one or two a game.”
On Wednesday night, Salt found the ball in his hands more than usual, thanks to Fernando’s aggressiveness on defense. Fernando tried to block every shot within his wingspan, and while he succeeded twice, he also left offensive rebounds available for Salt, who scored all of his points on dunks or layups.
“We were joking that he hadn’t had any dunks all season,” Guy said. “Tonight, he had four or five. I guess he solved that.”
Said Salt: “All I did was jump and dunk. It was nothing special.”
Besides being unsung, Salt also may be Virginia’s most self-aware player. In an era when everyone shoot 3-pointers, he hasn’t tried one in a college game. He’d never try to dribble against a press.
“I know what I do,” he said. “I’ll do anything to help the team. I’m obviously happy to score.”
And the Cavaliers are glad to see it—even if they don’t count on it. Wednesday night is likely to be more of the exception than the rule, but it must comfort Tony Bennett to know what’s possible.
As the Cavalier with the most seniority, Salt takes a lot of ribbing from his younger teammates. Wednesday night’s three-hour bus ride back to Charlottesville would have been the perfect opportunity to give it back.
“Nah,” Salt said. “Three guys scored ahead of me, The more points the better. If I score, it helps the team win. But I just have to keep working.”