Tyler Thornton gets little attention when zero points shows up next to his name in Duke’s final box score. It is not commonplace for him to be held scoreless, but it comes as little surprise. No media members crowd around his locker when he lays a goose egg. He does not get called to postgame press conferences when zeroes appear. The reaction is one of indifference.
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But on the rare night when he fills up a box score, everything seems to stop. Virginia Tech’s season certainly did.
“They were giving me open shots, I guess that was their gameplan, just letting me shoot,” Thornton said. “Coach was telling me, ‘If they give it to you take it.’ So I was just taking my shots.”
The 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard’s shots punished Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenburg’s strategy just enough to send Duke on to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament with a 60-56 hard-fought win.
Duke’s offense was unimpressive and inefficient for the majority of both halves, letting the No. 10 seed keep the game within striking distance. But when the big moments arose, the player the Hokies dared to beat them was able to do just that.
“I mean he hit one of the biggest 3s of the game and, you know, we won Maui because of his shot,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his surprise hero. “I’m OK if we lose and he misses. I’m OK because I know he’ll take the shot strong.”
That’s dangerous water Duke is wading into. When teams essentially play five-on-four on the defensive end, ignoring the Blue Devils’ unassuming point guard spotted up in the corner, both teams bank their futures on a career 29-for-85 outside shooter.
Even in the wins, drama prevails.
Thornton scored a career-high 13 points for the Blue Devils, with two of his three 3-pointers falling at big moments in a tight affair, but it also took a career-high 16 field goal attempts to get there. Both of his second-half field goals came with Duke clinging to a five-point lead.
“This was my first game when I really had that many shot opportunities,” said the Washington, D.C., native. “I didn’t expect them to do that the whole game, but I was ready and prepared.”
Thornton’s shot has shown its flair for the dramatic this season, just not the propensity to fall in the basket very often. As his coach referenced, his stunning long-range shot devastated a Kansas Jayhawks team at the Maui Invitational, one that is set to capture a No. 1 NCAA seed. He scored seven points on 2-for-4 shooting in that affair. Duke’s starting point guard also hit a seemingly harmless 3-pointer in the midst of Duke’s memorable comeback against North Carolina in Chapel Hill. That shot accounted for Thornton’s only points in the game.
“When he gets buckets, he turns up his intensity. He was tough for us all day,” fellow guard Seth Curry said.
And then came Friday evening in Phillips Arena when a pro-Duke contingency showered him with applause throughout the second half.
It would seem, at this point, Thornton is toying with the odds—and history. The point guard position is sacred place in this Duke program, a breeding ground of excellence under former Army point man Krzyzewski. The NCAA’s career leader in assists is a Blue Devil. The runaway NBA Rookie of the Year this season is a former Blue Devil point guard. Jason Williams, Chris Duhon, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith have all occupied the position in the past decade.
Thornton is not his predecessors. His 13 points, four rebounds, two assists and three steals might have fooled a passerby in Atlanta Friday night, though.
His game was yet another chapter in a tale that has an uncertain ending this postseason. If every opponent the Blue Devils face banks on Thornton not beating them, history suggests the strategy eventually will work. But for those that fall on the short end of the stick, like Virginia Tech did, that final box score is going to be an unwelcome surprise—and Thornton knows it.
“When I hit shots, nobody really expects it.”
Seth Greenburg added himself to that growing list.