Barely able to see the rim through the sea of arms in front of him, Thornton knocked it down, keeping Duke on the throne as the kings of Maui.
Thornton capped a thrilling game between basketball behemoths, hitting an off-balance 3-pointer with 20 seconds left to give the sixth-ranked Blue Devils enough cushion to finish off a 68-61 win over No. 14 Kansas for its fifth Maui Invitational title.
"It's a dream shot," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "People will say it's a lucky shot, but I'll say I'm lucky to have him on my team. Sometimes you're on a bus with a guy who deserves and for that moment we were on his bus. Thank goodness he knew how to drive it."
Thornton hit one 3-pointer with 1:10 left and put the Blue Devils ahead for good with his second, sending the crowd into a frenzy and Duke (7-0) to another title.
A player who had taken nine shots all season hit the two biggest to keep the Blue Devils undefeated in Maui Invitational at 15-0.
"I saw the rim, but it was a tough shot," said Thornton, who had just one other point.
The Blue Devils and Jayhawks went toe-to-toe from the start, electrifying the crowd with the kind of compelling counterpunching you'd expect from blue blood programs.
Unleashing an array of alley-oops, 3-pointers and teeth-jarring picks, they never let the other get too far ahead, with 16 lead changes and 12 ties.
Kansas was led by Thomas Robinson, who had 16 points and 15 rebounds. Jeff Withey provided an unexpected lift with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Tyshawn Taylor had a solid first half on his way 17 points, but tired down the stretch to finish with 11 of Kansas' 17 turnovers.
Fittingly, it came down to a thrilling finish.
Eljiah Johnson hit a 3-pointer with 1:33 left to put Kansas (3-2) up 61-60. Thornton answered 23 seconds later, surprising the Jayhawks with a 3 of his own.
Thornton then put the punctuation on this classic in paradise, dropping in his did-he-just-do-that 3 after Taylor had his 11th turnover at the other end.
"We couldn't have guarded him any better," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "That was unbelievable."
This rare early matchup of college basketball powers had the potential to be one of the most exciting in the 28-year history of the Maui Invitational.
Duke's resume includes four national titles, the winningest coach in Division I history -- Krzyzewski passed mentor Bobby Knight last week -- and as strong a following as any team in the country.
Kansas has three national titles, a coach who's won 83 percent of his games in Self and is right up there with the Blue Devils as a fan favorite.
Duke lost its top three scorers from last season, reloaded with another stellar recruiting class, headed by Austin Rivers. Big, versatile and athletic, the Blue Devils outlasted Tennessee to win their Maui opener, then shot past No. 15 Michigan in the semifinals.
Kansas lost a good chunk of its top end, too, not to mention half of its heralded recruiting class because of eligibility issues.
Still, the Jayhawks have Robinson, Taylor and three of those talented freshmen.
Kansas opened the Maui Invitational by bumping off gritty Georgetown, then outlasted UCLA in the semifinals after nearly blowing all of a 20-point lead.
By getting through one of the toughest brackets ever at the Maui Invitational, these two elite teams set up a championship game that figured to be as sparkling as the Pacific Ocean just outside.
The atmosphere inside quaint Lahaina Civic Center fit the matchup, with the rowdy fans from each team trading chants, cheers and boos.
"This is what the Maui Invitational is all about," Krzyewski said.
The show lived up to the billing, starting with Rivers' deep, leg-splaying 3-pointer for the game's first points and an alley-oop by Miles Plumlee.
Robinson shook off a shot to the face in the first 15 seconds to throw down a pose-after-it dunk and Taylor had a surprising three-point play on his way to 13 first-half points, asking his teammates with an incredulous look if the shot went in.
Kansas also got a lift from Withey, who had 10 points after averaging 6.3 the first four games, to take a 35-31 lead at halftime.
The highlights continued in the second half.
Withey scored on an alley-oop from Taylor, who had an up-and-under reverse layup the next trip. Seth Curry opened with a 3-pointer, Kelly followed with one of his own.
It kept going like that until Thornton provided the knockout blow in a memorable Maui finale.
"Give him credit; I don't know if he even saw the rim when he took the shot," Self said. "It was a great shot and that was the ballgame. That was game."
An amazing one at that.