Duke's Austin Rivers, right, reacts after scoring the final Duke basket to secure the Blue Devils' 60-56 victory over Virginia Tech. ROBERT WILLETT - email@example.com
Updated 10:54 p.m.
ATLANTA – As Duke moved the ball around the perimeter in the second half of its 60-56 win over Virginia Tech on Friday night, Tyler Thornton saw that Seth Curry was going to catch it with what looked like enough space to get off an open 3-pointer from the wing.
“Shoot it, Seth,” Thornton yelled.
At the last second, a Virginia Tech defender lunged at Curry, forcing him to pass to a wide-open Thornton in the corner. With the Hokies showing little inclination to close out on him, Thornton squared up and let fly with another 3-pointer.
That attempt splashed through the net.
Not all of Thornton’s long-distance attempts were so fortunate, but Duke’s pass-first point guard shot often enough to make the Hokies pay at a couple of critical points for their defensive indifference.
“Our game plan was to force Tyler Thornton to beat us,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said. “We were ready to give up the open perimeter shots. Were we going to give it up to Curry? Were we going to give it up to (Austin) Rivers?
"Or were we going to give it up to Tyler Thornton?”
Given the opportunity, Thornton shot a career-high 16 times to score a career-high 13 points in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at Philips Arena. Considering the most he had ever shot in one game before Friday was six times, Thornton’s teammates said it was a bit strange to see him shooting so frequently.
“I told him, ‘If you’re open 100 times, shoot it 100 times,’” Duke’s Mason Plumlee said. “We haven’t had a player make more clutch shots …”
With that, Plumlee paused.
“Well, I take that back,” Plumlee said. “… I spoke too soon. I forgot we have Austin; we have Seth that take big shots.”
While Rivers actually led the second-seeded Blue Devils (27-5) with 17 points and Thornton only made five of the 16 shots he attempted and three of the 13 3-pointers, a large story of the game was the fact that Thornton was so willing to shoot.
The sophomore drained a 3-pointer with 3:31 left to give Duke an eight-point lead after the Hokies had closed to 52-47. Virginia Tech (16-17) would only get closer than that once more while the game was still in doubt.
After Thornton missed another 3-pointer from the corner, the Hokies’ Robert Brown drove and scored on a layup while being fouled by Plumlee to pull the Hokies within 55-51. Brown missed the free throw, but Thornton missed another 3-pointer to give Virginia Tech a chance in the final seconds.
Greenberg called timeout, but Erick Green couldn’t get his shot in the lane to fall when play resumed. The rebound came all the way out to halfcourt, and Rivers managed to race ahead of the crowd and chase the ball down. Rivers then made a layup while being fouled, and the Blue Devils led 58-51 after he made his free throw.
“It’s the first sprint I’ve seen Austin win,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Krzyzewski was in a joking mood because the performance was as gritty as any the Blue Devils have put together this ACC season.
Without Ryan Kelly because of a sprained right foot and with Miles Plumlee in early foul trouble, Duke relied on a patched-together lineup and a gritty defensive effort to earn a date in the semifinals with Florida State.
Days after Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils still sometimes struggle to avoid letting offensive issues affect them defensively, Duke held Virginia Tech to 30.2 percent shooting. All this despite the fact the Blue Devils only hit five of their 26 3-point attempts and shot 37 percent for the game.
“We made some big defensive stops,” Krzyzewski said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well … (but) we are excited to about going forward and proud of our guys to come up with a win like that.”
Photo: Duke's Tyler Thornton (3) shoots as Virginia Tech's Dorian Finney-Smith (15) defends during the second. ETHAN HYMAN - firstname.lastname@example.org