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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Tyler Thornton’s circus shot gives Duke fifth Maui championship

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

In the wake of one of the best title games in the 28-year history of the Maui Invitational, joyous Duke fans at the Lahaina Civic Center chanted the name of a little-known guard much of America likely hadn't heard of prior to Wednesday.

Yes, Tyler Thornton, this was your night.

Thornton did not have a basket until the final 75 seconds of Duke's 68-61 victory over Kansas when he sank a pair of improbable threes that provided the Blue Devils the cushion they needed to capture the championship.

The first was a gutsy shot from the left corner with 1:10 left to transform a one-point Duke deficit into a two-point lead. The second was a desperate scissor-kicking heave from the opposite corner as the shot clock expired, extending the lead to five with 21 seconds left and setting off a wild fist-pumping celebration on the Blue Devils bench.

By defeating 14th-ranked Kansas, revenge-minded Michigan and better-than-advertised Tennessee the past three nights, Duke maintained its mastery of Maui. The Blue Devils have won the Maui Invitational all five times they've participated, amassing an amazing 15-0 record at perhaps college basketball's most prestigious preseason event.

The Kansas team Duke outlasted Wednesday night appears worthy of its top 15 ranking despite substantial roster turnover from last year and a pair of highly touted freshmen being ruled ineligible last month. Thanks to the dominance of all-American candidate Thomas Robinson and the improvement of center Jeff Withey, the Jayhawks pushed the Blue Devils to the final minute and might have won were it not for guard Tyshawn Taylor's 11 turnovers.  {YSP:MORE}

Whether winning in Maui legitimizes Duke as a national title contender likely depends on which statistic you prefer to cite.

On the one hand, two of the past three Maui champs — 2010-11 UConn and 2008-09 North Carolina — have won the national title. On the other hand, none of Duke's previous four Maui championship teams have even reached the Final Four and the most recent one failed to get out of the second round of the NCAA tournament, falling to VCU in 2008.

There's reason to believe this year's Blue Devils might have more palatable finish based on the way they played against a Maui field considered one of the strongest in tournament history.

They showcased improved perimeter defense by holding Tennessee without a single three-pointer and harassing Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. into a scoreless first half. They played sound interior defense against Kansas star Thomas Robinson, limiting him to 16 points on 15 shots. And they scored in a variety of ways, whether it was Seth Curry's three-point shooting, Austin Rivers' forays to the rim or Ryan Kelly's pick-and-pops.

Nonetheless, the man who earned the status of Duke folk hero Wednesday night was Thornton, a 6-foot-1 guard who averaged 1.8 points in 9.9 minutes per game last season as a freshman. Thornton has earned an increased role off the bench this season as a result of his defensive prowess, which was the reason Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski opted to insert him into the game in place of Rivers for the game's final minutes.

Krzyzewski acknowledged Thornton's second three was "a lucky shot" after the game and TV replays showed Seth Curry appeared to travel earlier in the possession. Regardless, it's a shot Kansas fans will relive in their nightmares for weeks and Duke fans will rewatch on YouTube for years.

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