'Hoos salt away another regular-season title
Jack Salt did not score Saturday in Virginia's 73-68 senior day victory over Louisville, but it was a Salt-and-Five-Pillars type of effort.
Passion: How many times did you see guys smiling, cheering, pumping fists, and screaming after good plays for themselves or teammates? Or the passion and camaraderie teammates and coaches showed for Salt before and after the game? The regular season still would've been deemed amazing had UVa lost, but these guys were going for a fourth regular-season ACC championship in six years (forget the sharing stuff, Virginia won at North Carolina) and were going to go all out to send Salt out a winner by claiming victory on a seventh consecutive senior day.
Ty Jerome was the star of the day with 24 points, going 3 for 8 on 3s, and the junior put together a collection of other nice shots and moves (he was playing as if it was his last appearance in JPJ, too, which it could've certainly been) to finish 8 for 14 from the floor overall.
"[Jerome is] feeling better. He's such a competitor," Tony Bennett said in the postgame news conference. "And I think the crowd gave him some extra juice. And I think he is getting healthier with his back. We needed it all, that pull-up he hit, and some of the passes. ... To see what Ty did all across the board -- six assists, one turnover -- our ball security was good, and we needed everything."
Unity: Jerome led the way, but think about how many guys contributed to the win. Kyle Guy was off but still hit three 3s and scored 13 points (though my favorite play of his might have been his offensive rebound and stick-back). De'Andre Hunter was off but came up with some timely buckets and finished with nine points. Kihei Clark hit a 3 and a layup and did not have a turnover (UVa had just four). Braxton Key knocked down a big corner 3 to put Virginia up 61-59 with 6:23 left and finished with nine points (6 of 8 at the line), five rebounds, and two blocks. Mamadi Diakite did not have a great game, but contributed a couple of buckets. And of course, Jay Huff was once again a huge offensive spark, knocking down all three of his 3s from the top of the arc while also recording two blocks, a steal, a rebound, and an assist. And Salt did scratch the box score on his day in a very Salt way: one board, one steal, one assist, one block. It was a team win, and everyone was needed during a game in which the Cardinals came to play.
Bennett reiterated the theme going into the season, and noted how the entire year was about "different guys at different times" stepping up.
"We used our theme of 'united pursuit,' Bennett said. "We're gonna pursue it for all we're worth and be united in the hard stuff and in the successes. ... It was really a different-guys-at-different-times season. Obviously the key guys had terrific years. To do it in this league over almost three months and 18 games, it's a test of consistency. They answered the bell.
"To think about it for Jack and to think about it being the fourth one in six years, I know how challenging it is in a league like this. This group, they paid the price in the offseason, and they worked hard, and again, their body of work speaks for itself."
Thankfulness: Bennett expressed many times how thankful and grateful he was for Salt, his players, and then thanked the crowd after the game, saying the JPJ fans make it one of the best atmospheres in college basketball -- he noted how his first couple of seasons, he couldn't give away tickets, and now, the waiting list for season tickets is at least 4,000 deep. I'm sure he's also thankful for an offense that has plenty of weapons to go along with his defense, especially with Louisville hitting some tough shots.
"[Different guys at different times] has to happen for us to be successful in the single-elimination tournaments now," he said. "I think that's happened often at times when we've either been down or needed a boost, it's been, 'name the guy' in that eight-man rotation we are playing."
Servanthood: As mentioned above, Jerome also had six assists, and Virginia displayed crisp passing and sharing of the ball for most of the day, enabling it to get open looks and hit 12 of 28 3-pointers, not as many as at Syracuse, but still a solid number, though I think I would've preferred fewer attempts overall (and Bennett mentioned a couple shots that were maybe too quick -- a Jerome airball -- or two? -- comes to my mind first).
Humility: It's a Bennett staple to praise opponent after games, even if they sometimes don't deserve it. But Bennett knew and fans knew that Louisville gave a great effort. Despite being 19-12 and having some trouble closing out two games in particular, the Cardinals were able to build a 23-point lead on Duke (which had Zion then) for a reason. They can play some quality ball. They could've packed it up after Virginia's quick start and settled in for the ACC tournament, but they didn't, even snagging separate seven- and six-point leads in the second half.
"Congrats to how hard and well Louisville played," Bennett said. "That was a physical game. The possessions were hard. They made some tough contested shots. They attacked us. ... They are a physical defensive team. They were ready to play. Coach [Chris] Mack had them very ready."
But Bennett was most excited to talk about Salt after the game, even though the New Zealander didn't score a single point, and that's because Bennett almost always knows just the right thing to say and is humble to a fault. He always picks up on the small, normally unnoticed things players do that help the team. That's why a guy like Salt became a staple in the starting lineup, and why a freshman like Clark plays a lot despite not always being a threat to score. Bennett made sure Salt was going to be the last guy to take down the net in front of the home fans on his day.
"I was just so proud of him," he said of Salt when asked what he was thinking when he saw the big man climbing the ladder to reach the hoop. "I remember on his [official or unofficial] visit, there was a Taylor Swift concert [at JPJ]. ... But they came in late ... And the crowd was just crazy as they were coming to our office, you could see it. And now he's getting to cut down a net. I don't know if it was quite as high-pitched screaming in the game today as the Taylor Swift concert. I thought the tribute was so special. ... Someone said, 'When you think of Jack -- word association -- what do you think of?' I said, 'I think of the book, 'The Giving Tree.' ... When I think of Jack, I think of that book. He is a giver through and through, and it is unbelievable what he does off the court, of course on the court, how he plays, that speaks for itself. And so all of that was flooding through my mind, and I was just really thankful."
Virginia has three main stars as Bennett referenced above. But what has set this team apart so far from some of the other great teams under Bennett in Charlottesville has been the weapons and answers Virginia has around its best players. On Saturday, Guy and Hunter were a little off. But Huff, Key, and others came through with above-average games. The Wahoos still scored 73 points, and they have averaged 76.5 over the past four games. That's the kind of scoring effort it's going to take to advance deep into March. Don't get me wrong, UVa's defense has to be there, and I'm sure Bennett is going to find some things the players did wrong on that side of the court Saturday. But Louisville isn't the only team that can make some tough shots.
"It's 40-minute territory," Bennett said of moving forward. "Possessions matter. [The ACC regular season] is the test of consistency over 18 games. Now you're into situations where it's one and done. And a hot team or a [bad] matchup, you to just have to be ready to go. And that's a different kind of challenge, so hopefully we will be ready for it. You press on. ... You learn from all the successes and the hard lessons that we've learned and be as ready as you can. And you can't say much more really."
The Cavaliers' ability to have answers no matter what a team throws at them, no matter who is hot or cold, is how it's going to have to be moving forward into the madness. It's got to be a united pursuit.
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