Salt Flavors Road Win For #4 Virginia

By Jerry Ratcliffe

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – There was a lot of Salt on the rims of the Xfinity Center on Wednesday night when fourth-ranked Virginia outlasted No. 24 Maryland, 76-71, in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge.

Playing in their first true road game, the Cavaliers built a 39-30 halftime lead and maintained enough cushion to hold off a furious Terrapins rally at the end in front of a sellout crowd of nearly 18,000 in a pressure-packed, hostile environment.

Virginia, improving to 7-0 overall, and 14-6 in the Challenge _ better than all the Big 10 teams, and second only to Duke _ survived a gritty road test in a battle of unbeatens.

Jack Salt, the Cavaliers’ often underappreciated, 7-foot center, didn’t lead his team in scoring, but he led them in t-o-u-g-h, and that meant everything to the Wahoos.

Salt scored a career-high 12 points on 6-for-7 shooting (mostly two-hand slams), grabbed seven rebounds, had no turnovers, a block, a steal, an assist, and only three personal fouls in helping UVa pull out the win.

Oh, and that wasn’t all. In back-to-back games, Salt had to defend two of the best big men in the country, Maryland’s Bruno Fernando, and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ at last weekend’s Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.

Let’s just say, Mr. Salt held his own.

“They’re both great bigs, traditionally back-to-the-basket bigs, and you don’t see that very often today,” Salt said after the game. “I take it as a challenge, try to stay disciplined, stay physical, and not give them anything easy on the rim. They were two big guys. Bruno is really built (6-10, 240), so I knew I had to stay out of foul trouble.”

The big Kiwi is no slouch, either. Salt is a more muscular, more mobile defender than a year ago thanks to a diet and workout regimen that are evident with his movements. He relishes playing against physical opponents, particularly down in the paint rather than facing more mobile bigs that he has to defend out on the perimeter.

“I would definitely rather bang on the inside than play out there,” Salt smiled.

UVa coach Tony Bennett had to challenge his big man, but no more than Salt challenged himself. Other than defend, he didn’t contribute much in the first half: one basket, one rebound, one block in 16 minutes. He wasn’t very effective on defense either.

“I got beat too easily … [Bruno] ripped by me,” Salt said. “I told myself to stay low and be ready to be physical. I thought I did a better job in the second half.”

As Lefty used to say in these stomping rounds, “A-men.”

Salt made 5 of 6 shots in the second half, had six boards and along with some usual Pack-Line doubling the post action, did a good job against Fernando and forward Jalen Smith. Combined, the big Terrapin duo combined to make only two baskets the entire second half.

Salt’s first basket was UVa’s last of the first half, when he took Smith to the hole with an impressive move. He slammed a two-hander, then stuck back a Guy miss during a 9-1 Cavalier run to open the second half, causing Maryland coach Mark Turgeon to call a quick time out, UVa up 48-31.

He had three more dunks down the stretch in the second half as UVa clung to a lead that varied between 11 and six points. All of his baskets were huge, somewhat unexpected, particularly the dunks.

For days, teammates Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, among others had ribbed the big center from New Zealand about the fact that he hadn’t made a dunk this season, and about his career-high being 10 points.

Salt, admittedly the elder statesman of the team, took the good-natured razzing in stride.

“It comes with the territory,” Salt smiled. “I can take it.”

Guy lit up when Jack’s name was brought up in the postgame.

“I’m so happy for him,” Guy beamed. “We were joking with him about the career-high 10 points and that he hadn’t had a dunk. Well, be put us all to bed tonight.”

Salt would have been justified to return the razzing to his teammates on the trip back to Charlottesville, but that’s not his style.

“Nah, I would never do that,” said the straight-laced big man. “I love what I do. Anything I can do to help my team win. Obviously I’m happy when I score, but if we get the win, at the end of the day I’m happy with that.”

Talk about the ultimate team guy, that’s Salt.

He is surrounded by scorers, Guy, who had five 3-pointers and a game-high 18 points; Jerome, who was close behind with 17 including a timely deep 3 to help ward off a Terrapins run; De’Andre Hunter, who had 15 points and a jaw-dropping throw down that silenced the hostile crowd.

With that kind of firepower, Virginia is difficult enough to beat. But with Salt putting up a dozen points, that’s a formula for bigger and better things.

“The more points the better,” Salt said. “If I can score and help this team out, I’ll crash the glass like I did tonight.”

He was also smart enough to take advantage of Hunter being double-teamed essentially all game long, leaving Salt open at times. He also took advantage of Fernando’s aggressiveness.

“Bruno is such a good shot blocker and is so athletic and he goes after stuff,” Bennett said about the Maryland big man. “So when shot blockers go after [the ball], if you can get under the rim there’s going to be open lanes and alleys to the glass and Jack was all over that.”

Braxton Key, a fifth Wahoo in double figures with 10 points, appreciated Salt’s effort.

“We know Bruno is a very big part of Maryland’s offense,” Key said. “They throw it to him a lot. Jack did a great job battling with him, and it’s no easy task for Jack to contain him.”

Virginia passed a big early season test, and so did the new Jack Salt. Maybe we should call him Salt 2.0.

If he can continue to produce as he did against Maryland, the Cavaliers will finally have that force in the middle that Bennett has been longing for.

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