Overview: Wow. What a game. There were 16 lead changes during Duke’s 68-61 victory over Kansas in Wednesday's Maui Invitational championship game. That says it all. Tyler Thornton, known for his defensive prowess, knocked down a go-ahead 3 with 1:12 to play, then another one from long distance with 20 seconds remaining on the game clock to seal it. Those shots were just the fifth and sixth 3-pointers of his college career.
Turning point: With his team down 61-60, Thornton nailed a 3 from the corner with 1:12 to go. That shot came seconds after Kansas’ Elijah Johnson hit a go-ahead 3 from the top of the key. Thornton’s first 3 immediately swung the momentum of the frantic final minutes toward the Blue Devils. On the subsequent possession, Tyshawn Taylor committed his 11th turnover of the night and Thornton followed up with a no-way-that's-going-in 3 as the shot clock expired on the next possession.
Why Duke won: Forwards Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly roamed the interior on both ends of the floor. They were aggressive and effective. Both players recorded 17 points and were responsible for 3 blocks between them. The game was tight, so every play truly counted. With just under 5 minutes to play, Plumlee swatted Thomas Robinson’s layups on back-to-back plays. The duo’s aggression put Jeff Withey in foul trouble. He was on the bench with four fouls during that stretch. With Robinson as the only true inside threat, Kelly helped Plumlee force Robinson to take difficult shots. Thornton’s late 3s wouldn’t have mattered without Kelly and Plumlee’s consistent intensity throughout the contest.
Why Kansas lost: The Jayhawks had their chances. And that’s what’s going to bother them when they reflect on their loss to Duke. The Jayhawks rushed shots after defensive stops. On multiple occasions, Robinson took jump shots as if to respond to something Duke has done on the other end of the floor. Taylor’s 11 turnovers speak to the inconsistent offense. The Jayhawks missed a key opportunity to pull away from the Blue Devils because they didn’t have the patience to take better shots at crucial junctures. In the end, KU's impatience cost it the Maui Invitational title.
Star of the game: Plumlee recorded 17 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks. Plus, he was matched up against Robinson, who had a double-double but missed out on crucial late scoring opportunities because of his defense.
What it means for Duke: The Blue Devils are leaving Maui as a more complete squad. Beginning with an exhibition trip to China and Dubai this summer, the Devils faced a series of question marks leading up to the 2011-12 season. Who would play point guard? Would they be tough enough inside? How will they compete without Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith? Well, they answered those questions by winning the Maui Invitational for the fifth time. Plumlee and Kelly held their own against more athletic and talented post players in Maui. Austin Rivers struggled in some areas, but he didn’t try to escape the moment. He moved on after his mistakes, a sign of his maturation process. And this crew has the balance that the 2009-10 squad used to win a national title.
What it means for Kansas: KU has to watch this film. It will be a frustrating experience, but the Jayhawks need to know that this was their game. They made crucial judgment errors against the Blue Devils. There were turnovers, bad shots and rushed scoring opportunities. Kansas played tough until the final minute. But it shouldn’t have come down to that. The Jayhawks had their chances to pull away; they just didn’t make the necessary plays. So Kansas will leave Maui with a more positive outlook about its potential, while kicking itself for some of its blunders Wednesday.
More observations: Withey, Kelly and Plumlee have all faced the “soft” tag during their careers. But they were tenacious and aggressive in this one and set the tones for their respective programs. … Plumlee employed a nice left hook that no defender will be able to block. Wonder why more big men don’t use it. … Taylor committed 11 turnovers because he tried to force so many plays. Duke swarmed the senior guard, particularly in transition. Instead of waiting for help or resetting, he forced passes and overdribbled. Seemed like Taylor had his own pace.
What’s next: Duke faces third-ranked Ohio State on Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Kansas will host the Buckeyes on Dec. 10 after playing Florida Atlantic, South Florida and Long Beach State in its next three games.