LAHAINA, Hawaii -- Fans from both sides had warring chants that echoed throughout the crowd. Mike Krzyzewski was leaping up and down and spilling out on the floor with emotion. Bill Self twisted and recoiled with every turn of the game.
Duke players leapt into each other’s arms when it was over as the faces on their Kansas counterparts had the far-off look of a team that had just dropped an elimination game of some sort.
Was this game played in November or in March?
The Maui Invitational is often a great event. But it’s played so early in the season and is such a departure from the typical mood of big-time college basketball that usually it can’t help to have at least some exhibition feel to it.
And then a night like Wednesday happens, when two legacy programs played a high-intensity game that could have just as easily been taking place in a dome and not a tiny band-box gym in the middle of the ocean.
In a way, it is a shame that the final score will be recorded as "Duke 68, Kansas 61," because it doesn’t imply the sort of struggle it was. Or how badly both sides clearly valued the game.
They hadn’t played against each other since 2003, so there was a gravity to the game. The key players in both jerseys had been a part of matchups like this before, but not in the roles they were going to play. All of this added to the tension, and it was tangible.
The game was ultimately decided on a wild and freakish shot, the unheralded Tyler Thornton heaving in a 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock with 20 seconds left that made it a two-possession game. Krzyzewski later called it a “dream shot” as he sat next to Thornton, who was clearly still floating and not yet realizing that he might’ve made one of the shots of his life. While that was the obvious final highlight, it was only a bit of what took place.
During the second half, as the lead repeatedly changed hands, Krzyzewski sprang off the bench to fire his team up. Playing their seventh game in 12 days, fatigue was a factor for Duke. But it was so clear that their coach wanted them to fight through it because he understood the magnitude of the game.
“I want to win and I wanted them to see I haven’t retired yet,” he said. “It was important for me and important for them.”
The game was loaded with moments like that.
There was KU's Thomas Robinson showing off his all-around game in front of nearly a dozen NBA general managers, displaying a multi-faceted offensive game from jumpers to post moves to sheer power. He demanded the ball, playing with such a purpose that he often seemed to be moving at a different speed. His 16 points and 15 rebounds spoke to that. So did the fire with which he played and the long face that he left the floor with, totally spent.
“This is what we came to Kansas for, for games like this,” Robinson said. “I haven’t been around that long, but I do think it’ll go down as one of the top games [ever] in the tournament.”
But all Robinson’s play did was end up setting up a series of mighty one-on-one battles with Duke’s Mason Plumlee in the final minutes, with Plumlee’s longer arms and strength able to shut down Robinson’s effectiveness. With his 17 points and 12 rebounds, Plumlee ended up getting the edge in that matchup.
The Blue Devils’ Ryan Kelly, who had 17 points and was named the event’s MVP, had a game-long struggle with Kansas bigs Jeff Withey and Justin Wesley. There was Kansas guards Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson and their back-and-forth with Duke’s Seth Curry and Austin Rivers.
Taylor’s speed and aggressiveness stymied his counterparts as Curry and Rivers, who were a force during the tournament, were rendered mostly ineffective. Curry was just 2-of-8 and had trouble staying with Taylor on defense. Rivers got in foul trouble and wasn’t a factor in the second half, something not foreseen. Taylor finished with 17 points and Johnson had 10.
But Taylor’s excitement at times was too much and Duke’s pressure only increased as the game wore on and he ended up turning the ball over an ugly 11 times, 7 of them in the second half.
All of it together created something more than a game in Maui. It was instantly a candidate for one of the best regular season games of the year.
“I can’t imagine there being a better atmosphere than that game with two historic programs,” Self said. “I know our guys had a blast playing in it. I had a blast coaching in it.”