Luke DeCock

UNC’s stars align, Zion’s back and unexpected hero is Salt in NC State’s wounds

Thursday may no longer be the first big day of the ACC tournament but it still feels like the first big day of the tournament, and this time the feeling wasn’t merely sentimental. Some of the ACC’s biggest stars took over Charlotte in quarterfinals that featured not only the best finish of the tournament but the most unlikely hero.

Coby White, Cam Johnson and Luke Maye combined for 52 of North Carolina’s points in a fast-paced 83-70 blowout of Louisville. The legendary unicycling bowl-flipper Red Panda made her ritual halftime appearance. Zion Williamson was back in the building and back in the lineup for Duke. Kyle Guy lit it up for Virginia to eliminate N.C. State along with, of course, Jack Salt.

Jack Salt?


And that doesn’t even include the clutchest shot of the day, the boat-rocker Terance Mann’s overtime game-winner for Florida State against Virginia Tech after the Seminoles tied the score in the final seconds of regulation.

Still, none of that got the attention Williamson’s entrance to the building got at halftime of the North Carolina game. The anticipation for his return, after missing most of six games since the bizarre shoe-splitting incident against the Tar Heels, was strong in the building and somewhere beyond breathless on ESPN.

There was plenty of drama leading up to that, including North Carolina’s eighth straight win, its longest winning streak of the season. The Tar Heels had 27 fast-break points, two short of their most in a game this season – and they had none in the bizarre January home loss to the Cardinals which has now been suitably avenged.

That set up a potential third meeting between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, pending the results of Duke’s third meeting with Syracuse to end a very long day late Thursday night, a day that started with N.C. State being dispatched at the hands of not only the Guy you expect but the guy you’d never expect, Salt.

The 6-foot-10 center is one of the two Virginia starters you’d let shoot all he wants, the one guy on the floor you’d want to foul if you needed to foul, and he essentially muscled N.C. State out of the tournament Thursday.

Guy going off for 29, you tip your cap. Salt scoring a career-high 18, going 4-for-5 from the line and getting called for a technical after he turned the rim into the Olympic high bar on the dunk that essentially put the game away, what can you do?

Virginia’s Jack Salt (33) defends N.C. State’s Markell Johnson (11) during the second half on Thursday, March 13, 2019 during quarter finals of the ACC Tournament at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C. Robert Willett

“The thing that made Jack special tonight was he made his free throws and that was tough on us, because obviously any time you foul him, he hasn’t been a great free-throw shooter,” the N.C. State coach said after the 76-56 loss. “I thought he played great.”

N.C. State’s ACC tournament ended at the mercy of the best breakout performance by a New Zealander in a championship event in North Carolina since Michael Campbell won the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 2005.

That triumphant moment of national glory lives on in the collective Kiwi memory today. Or not.

“I don’t know who Michael Campbell is,” said Salt, who was 9 when Campbell won. (Tony Bennett, sitting to Salt’s right, knew.)

Salt’s dunk was the exclamation point, giving him a career-high with 7 ½ minutes to go on his way to his second double-figure scoring game of the season and fourth of his career. The technical, Salt said, was not intentional. But who would have blamed him if it were?

“I haven’t jumped from that far and dunked in a while, so I had to hold onto the rim or else I would have fell on my head,” Salt said. “I was pretty surprised on that one.”

Who wasn’t?

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.