Print and Go Back ESPN.com: College Basketball Nation [Print without images]

Thursday, November 24, 2011
Ford in Maui: Duke's unlikely trio of heroes

By Chad Ford

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Coming into the season, the buzz around Duke centered on two sons of the NBA -- Seth Curry and Austin Rivers. And for the first six games of the season, Rivers and Curry led the team in scoring and set the tempo for the team.

But on Wednesday night, with the Maui Invitational title on the line against a feisty Kansas team, it was the trio of Ryan Kelly, Mason Plumlee and Tyler Thornton who stole the show.

Ryan Kelly
Ryan Kelly took home Maui MVP honors after averaging 17 ppg.
Kelly led all Duke scorers with 17 points. Plumlee grabbed 12 boards and played stifling defense on Thomas Robinson. And Thornton hit two improbable 3s in the final few minutes of the game to give the Blue Devils the 68-61 victory over KU, giving the school its fifth Maui championship and maintaining its perfect record (15-0) in the event.

Kelly, who was named MVP of the tournament, kept the Blue Devils in the game in the first half with his perimeter shooting. In addition, he constantly pulled Robinson away from the basket and showed off his ability to create off the dribble. Whether he was hitting his shots or missing them, he spread the floor for the Blue Devils and kept Robinson out of the paint on the defensive end.

Kelly, who averaged just 6.6 points per game as a sophomore while shooting 32 percent from 3, looks like a completely different player as a junior. Last season, he was a bit of a shrinking wallflower that lacked confidence. This season, Kelly is on the hunt for his offense and is giving the Blue Devils a huge boost.

"I'm happy for Ryan," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I really think Ryan's going to be one of the best players when he finishes up. He's going to be a pro ... Ryan, I think was deserving for three straight days in what he did, but he wouldn't be MVP if Mason didn't play well tonight."

Indeed, Plumlee was also crucial for the Devils. His length and athleticism gave Robinson a number of problems in the second half. On the offensive end, he got deep position on the KU bigs on multiple possessions and worked his way to the line. Plumlee's 17 points were the second-highest output of his career and he was even more impressive from the line. Coming into the game, Plumlee was shooting 34 percent from the charity stripe this season. On Wednesday night, he was 7-for-9 from the line.

"I thought the key guy to the game was Mason," Krzyzewski said. "You know, Mason really played like such a man with physicality and size. When you're playing with a guy that's playing that hard and that demonstrative, it gives you confidence.

"It's tough to single out anybody else, but I'm telling you just effort-wise, I've done this a long time, that was the key to the game. I know he didn't make the all-tournament team or whatever, but he made my team. We don't win this championship without him."

But the star of the night was Thornton, the scrappy backup guard for the Blue Devils. In the first two games of the tournament, Thornton scored a total of 4 points. For the season, he had taken a total of nine shots in six games. But with Rivers struggling down the stretch, Coach K decided to bench his star freshman in favor of Thornton.

Ryan Kelly, Tyler Thornton
While Ryan Kelly, left, was tournament MVP, less-heralded players like Tyler Thornton keyed Duke's latest Maui title run.
And that's why he's Coach K.

Thornton played tenacious defense on Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor and hit his first bucket of the ball game, a huge 3, with 1:12 left to go in the game. The shot gave the Blue Devils a 63-61 lead. A minute later, with the shot clock winding down to zero and with just 20 seconds left in the game, Thornton hit a high-arching, double-clutch 3 at the shot-clock buzzer to extend the lead to 5. It was a dagger to the Jayhawks.

"Give him credit. I don't even know if he saw the rim when he shot it," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "But it was a heck of a shot. It was a great shot. It was the ballgame."

"I saw the rim," Thornton said. "But it was a tough shot. When Seth kicked me the ball, I looked at the shot clock, it was 3 seconds, and I just tried to get up a good shot. Once it left my hands, I kind of thought it was going to be in and luckily it was."

Added Krzyzewski: "It's a dream shot. People say it was a lucky shot, but I will tell you I'm lucky to have him on my team to shoot that shot. Sometimes you're just on a bus with a guy who deserves to win, and for that moment we were on his bus. Thank goodness he knew how to drive it."

A few more notes from the Duke-KU game:

-- Just as improbable as Thornton hitting those shots was the fact that Thornton was in the game at all. Rivers picked up his fourth foul with 6:39 left in the game. Thornton replaced him and Coach K never subbed Rivers back in for him. It was a pretty bold move considering that Rivers, up until that moment, was the Blue Devils' leading scorer and later would be named to the all-tournament team. Rivers was struggling in the second half and took a couple of wild shots, but Krzyzewski said the benching wasn't a punishment.

"Just defensively we needed it. Austin had four, and he got banged up on his shoulder a little bit. It wasn't that we were ... he didn't do anything wrong. It was just that team out on the court was so good defensively that you didn't want to mess up with it. He's fine with it. He'll win a lot of games for us, and he has. That's why he made all-tournament team. He's played well here."

-- Had the Jayhawks won the game, Robinson would have garnered the MVP of the tournament. He had another excellent game with 16 points, 15 rebounds and a block. However, Robinson also showed that he can be bothered by long, athletic, physical players like Plumlee. Robinson shot just 6-for-15 from the field and especially struggled down the stretch against Plumlee's stiff defense.

-- There's a downside to tweeting during a live game. Early in the first half, I tweeted "Best I've seen Tyshawn Taylor in years. Been good all 3 games for KU." At the time, he was slicing through the defense, hitting big shots and collecting dimes. But in the second half, Taylor regressed badly and ended the game with a whopping 11 turnovers. "Tyshawn had an unbelievable first half," Self said. "So even though he got careless there late, it may have been because he was a little fatigued and lost focus. So I've got to do a better job with that."