Thornton, Rivers spur Devils past Hokies
Tyler Thornton kept finding himself open, so he kept shooting.
Fortunately for Duke, he made enough of them to fend off a one-and-done for the perennial champs of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Thornton scored a career-best 13 points and Austin Rivers hustled for a clinching three-point play that carried the sixth-ranked Blue Devils to a 60-56 victory over cold-shooting Virginia Tech in the ACC quarterfinals Friday night.
It wasn’t pretty.
It was good enough to keep Duke (27-5) in the hunt for its fourth straight tournament title and 11th in 14 years.
”I don’t try to coach stats,” Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ”I try to coach wins. Our kids have a lot of heart.”
They certainly have a knack of winning at this tournament, no matter how well they play, making it 10 straight victories since their last loss in the 2008 semifinals. Even with a key member of their rotation, forward Ryan Kelly, sitting out the trip to Atlanta because of a sprained right foot, Duke advanced to face No. 17 Florida State or Miami on Saturday.
And, of course, the Blue Devils would like another crack at their most bitter rival, No. 4 North Carolina, in Sunday’s final.
”These kids are pretty resilient,” Krzyzewski said. ”We try to hang in there.”
While Thornton, averaging just 3.7 points a game, provided the unexpected offense, Rivers came up with the biggest play of the game. The Hokies trailed 55-51 and were looking to make it a one-possession game when Erick Green drove toward the lane and put up a one-hander. It ricocheted off the rim — appropriate for Virginia Tech on this night — and Miles Plumlee got a hand on the ball, swatting it toward midcourt.
Four players took off after it, two from each team. Rivers, the freshman son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, got there first, scooped it up and kept right on going. He made the layup, drew a foul on Robert Brown and knocked down the free throw with 15.1 seconds remaining.
”That’s the first sprint I’ve seen Austin win this year,” Krzyzewski joked. ”I should’ve known better. I need to put a ball out in front of him, where he thinks he might score, when we do our sprints. Then he might win a few more.”
Duke went down to the wire with the 10th-seeded team, even though the Hokies (16-17) struggled through more than 8 minutes without making a field goal in the second half. Rivers scored 17 points and Mason Plumlee chipped in with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Thornton, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, had not attempted more than six shots in a game all season. He put it up a staggering 16 times — all but three of them from beyond the 3-point arc. Three of those went down, and Duke needed every one to hold off the feisty Hokies.
”I had open shots,” Thornton said. ”I was going to take them.”
That was Virginia Tech’s plan all along. It didn’t work out.
”We wanted to make Tyler Thornton beat us, plain and simple,” Hokies coach Seth Greenberg said.
It was amazing Virginia Tech hung around as long as it did, considering the Hokies made only 16 of 53 shots and needed a late flourish just to nudge their average above 30 percent. After Green’s jumper with 13:14 remaining, Virginia Tech didn’t score again until Brown hit a short fallaway jumper with 4:53 left to make it 50-42.
”Offensively, we weren’t very good. That’s just the reality,” Greenberg said. ”We had opportunities. We just didn’t finish.”
The Hokies’ frustration was epitomized by a stretch near the end of their drought. Brown pulled up for a little 10-foot bank shot that wasn’t even close, the ball clanking off the side of the rim as his shoulders slumped. The Hokies hustled for the offensive rebound, setting up Green for a drive to the hoop. The ball spun all the way around the iron — and out.
Green broke into a frustrated smile as he headed back up the court, seeming to sense that nothing was going to go on this night.
Brown and Green led the Hokies with 16 points apiece, but Green made only 3-of-16 shots. He did most of his damage at the foul line, going 9-for-9.
”We couldn’t capitalize in the lane like we needed to,” said Dorenzo Hudson, held to 6 points on 3-of-9 shooting. ”I felt like we needed just that one burst to get us over the hump.”
It never came, so Duke is moving on despite a 37-percent shooting night.
”I’m really proud of our team,” River said. ”We didn’t shoot the ball well, but we didn’t let that dictate our defense. I think we’ve learned in that area.”