Itâs always good to be a Duke fan, but some days are better than others.Â Wednesday night was one of those, and itâs a game Tyler Thornton can talk about for the rest of his life.
Thornton, who had hit just 12 shots according to ESPN TV (but five according to the boxscore), hit a huge three from the left corner with 1:14 left and with absolutely no hesitation at all. Then, with the clock running down, he nailed an off-balance jumper from right in front of the Duke bench, with the announcers harrumphing that Duke was getting off a bad shot.
Well, it was a bad shot, as bad in its own way as Sean Woods ridiculous 1992 shot was in the Eastern Regional Finals. You just don't bank runners over a 6-11 defender, and three point shots with that sort of form aren't supposed to go in either.
What the announcers didn't know was that Thornton has developed a bit of a habit of beating the shot clock: by our count, that's the third time this season he's hit a clutch shot late in the cycle, only the others weren't as critical.
And of course, no one can be in a position to do that without a lot of help from his teammates.
Kansas harassed Seth Curry, who has been brilliant from the floor, into a 2-8 night and Austin Rivers was 4-10.Â Andre Dawkins was 2-4 but one of those was a three with 2:57 left to give Duke a 60-58 lead.
While KU did a great job on Duke's three guards, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee were brilliant. Kelly was 6-17, but that doesn't begin to describe his game.Â He was superb.Â His footwork, his defense, his overall game awareness - it would be a shame if people focused on a subpar shooting night, because Kelly was excellent.
And so was Plumlee, perhaps more so.Â This might have been his best night at Duke.Â Aside from being statistically top-drawer (5-10 from the floor, 7-9 from the line for 17 points, 12 boards and two blocks), like Kelly, he was doing everything.Â He was intelligently aggressive, powerful on defense, and although he had four turnovers, still made relatively few mistakes.
Perhaps best of all, he took it right at Kansas, and when they took it to him, there was no backing down.Â He was a complete, and dominant, big man.
Duke got relatively little from their bench, other than Thornton's normal defensive intensity and late game heroics, and a massive dunk by Miles Plumlee, but Kansas got less: all of their points were from their starters, and while Bill Self might have liked to have sent Tyshawn Taylor and his 11 turnovers on the first surfboard back to the mainland, he has no real alternative to the St. Anthony's product.
Thomas Robinson was really good for the Jayhawks, finishing with 16 points and 15 rebounds, and Jeff Withey was solid at center, with 14 points and 10 boards.
In the end, though, Duke maintained its stranglehold on the Maui Classic title, thanks in no small part to the unlikeliest hero, Tyler Thornton. For a guy who was brought to Duke at least partly as an insurance policy for Kyrie Irving, the kid has been wonderful. We'd expect anyone who wears a Duke uniform to have great stories to tell, but the ones Thornton gets to tell now go alongside stories by guys like Christian Laettner, Sean Dockery, Fred Lind and Robbie West. Pretty good company for an "insurance policy" to keep.
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