DurHAM — At the end of the first half against North Carolina, Tyler Thornton was asked to do something he had never done before.
Play the 4 forward position.
Thornton, who stands 6-foot-1, held his own in No. 2 Dukes 73-68 win over the Tar Heels.
The hero of the game for us was Thornton, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said afterwards. He would not let us lose.
Thornton has long been Dukes sixth man and utility man. In practice, he fills in for Seth Curry, whose nagging right shin injury limits him to mainly walkthroughs and light defense. In games, he is the best on-ball defender, can play all three guard positions, and apparently knows the defense well enough to even play the 4, which has been filled on a committee basis since Ryan Kellys right foot injury.
With just over three minutes remaining in the first half, as Duke trailed 31-25, Krzyzewski opted to sub out Amile Jefferson and put in Curry. The lineup was 6-10 Mason Plumlee and then a quartet of guards Curry, Thornton, Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon none of whom are taller than 6-4. At the same time, the Tar Heels had four players who measured at least 6-5 on the floor: P.J. Hairston, James Michael McAdoo, Leslie McDonald and Reggie Bullock.
The group didnt lose any ground, as Jefferson returned about two minutes later with the Blue Devils trailing by four.
Early in the second half, Krzyzewski again went to the four-guard look, a lineup configuration the Blue Devils have rarely used this year. Instead of Plumlee, who had three fouls, in the low post, it was 6-8 Josh Hairston with the same four guards, as Thornton came in for Jefferson.
He knows the game and he knows every position, he can tell guys what to do and they will listen because he is one of our leaders, so yeah he pays attention, Krzyzewski said of Thornton, adding that he will make a great coach someday. He has earned his scholarship tonight.
Within a minute of taking the floor, Thronton grabbed an offensive rebound and then drained a 3-pointer, his second make of the game beyond the arc (meanwhile, the rest of the Blue Devils were a combined 0-for-5). That made it a one-possession game at 38-35 and sparked a 15-5 run that gave Duke the lead it would not relinquish.
The taller and longer UNC players never did drive by the small, scrappy Blue Devils guards, settling for jump shots instead. Starting with Thorntons 3-pointer, Duke hit 8 of its next 10 shots, including another Thornton 3. In the same time frame, the Tar Heels went 3-for-7 from the field, the beginning of a 3-for-12 slump.
In my opinion, it is not a matchup problem, Williams said how his team matched up with Dukes four guards. Their guys made big plays.
Every entry in Thorntons stat line was a big play. His three 3s all came at critical moments, his two offensive rebounds led directly to five Duke points, nearly half of the Blue Devils second-chance points (12), and, in a game where Duke was more turnover-prone than normal, Thornton committed just one.
Even his 3-point miss was big, as it came late in the game with one second left on the shot clock. The prayer grazed the rim, and Reggie Bullock fouled Sulaimon on the rebound with 37 seconds remaining. When the freshman made both free throws, Duke was up 67-61, essentially sealing the game.
Thronton brings one other element to the Blue Devils: anger. Sometimes, it boils over, like when he fouled N.C. States Scott Wood on a 3-point shot and was whistled for a technical as he threw Wood an elbow in response to a verbal jab. But on Wednesday night, that emotion fueled Duke through a lackluster start and off night from Plumlee.
Sometimes his toughness gets the best of him, you know, I like him because he can get angry, Krzyzewski said of Thornton. I dont think players get angry like they used to, and that comes easy for me. But I think anger is an emotion that gets you passed being tired and gets you past a lot of things.
Against the Tar Heels, that anger helped get Duke the win.