LAHAINA, Hawaii This one is going to hurt. That was obvious as the horn sounded on Kansas 68-61 loss to Duke and Thomas Robinson fell to the floor, remaining there with his head down. Walking back to the bench, Tyshawn Taylor pulled his jersey over his head to hide his eyes.
KU had taken a 61-60 lead on a gutsy three-point shot by Elijah Johnson, but dagger threes on back-to-back possessions by Dukes unsung guard Tyler Thornton the second coming on a heave at the end of the shot clock handed the Jayhawks a bitter defeat to the Blue Devils in the Maui Invitational championship game.
Taylor had to feel the most regret. His 11 turnovers eight in the second half were unbefitting of a senior point guard and the player he is capable of being. Thomas Robinsons double-double 16 points and 15 rebounds were not enough. Taylor and the Jayhawks, now 3-2, were simply too careless with the basketball for a team that clearly cared so much about proving that this KU team is right up there with Bill Selfs other squads.
After the game, Self defended Taylor, who also had a team-high 17 points.
He played great, Self said. We put the ball in his hands a lot. We told him our game plan was to drive it, drive it, drive it. When thats your game plan, theres a chance you can have some bad plays. But he just got out of control for a few possessions there in the second half. Looking back now, I wish I had subbed for him.
Self thought Taylor might have become fatigued late. That certainly could have been the case with the Jayhawks trailing just 63-61 in the last minute. Self called for Thomas Robinson to fake a ball screen for Taylor, hoping that both Duke players would go with Robinson in an attempt to hedge. But Dukes Ryan Kelly stayed with Taylor, who lost the ball off his foot out of bounds for his most costly giveaway of the night. KU would not get another chance to tie or take the lead.
Even with the heartbreaking loss, No. 14 KU proved that it is for real against the sixth-ranked Blue Devils, who got 17 points from Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee to win their fifth Maui title in five tries and improve their record here to 15-0.
We came to Kansas for games like this, Robinson said. Its too bad we got the short end of the stick, but I feel that my team got better. We did accomplish something when we came to the islands, and well go back to Kansas a better team. So Im happy, but at the same time, I wanted to have the trophy.
Wednesdays game was nothing short of a classic, a two-hour opus. In a small gym with a high-school scoreboard and yellow volleyball boundaries painted on the floor, on an island thousands of miles away from the mainland, March came early for college basketball fans. The Maui Invitational is one of the only events pre-calendar-turn capable of capturing the nations attention, and it did so this time not just because two legendary programs were playing but because Duke and Kansas went at each other like something bigger than a trophy covered in a lei was on the line.
Its the beauty of basketball when that happens, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. Win or lose, it was a good thing for our team today.
This was Self striding halfway across the court to argue a call in the first half, red in the face. This was Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel, back on the Blue Devils sideline after being fired at Oklahoma, slapping the floor like he was still playing point guard. This was diehard fans from both sides arguing officiating so fervently that one might have thought swift justice was somehow a possibility.
The Jayhawks admitted after Tuesday nights win over UCLA that they came to Maui with the specific intention of playing Duke. Like any team, KUs players grew up in the Duke craze encouraged by ESPN hype and made perfectly legitimate by Coach Ks four national championships. Lately, even for a program as storied as Kansas, nothing feels better than humbling the Blue Devils.
From the opening tip, Kansas brought its gritty pressure defense and pushed the Duke guards out on the perimeter. On the inside, KUs Jeff Withey sent a message early that he was neither a pushover nor simply Robinsons wingman. Withey can stand alone. He showed it by scoring six of the Jayhawks first 10 points he threw in a running baby-hook shot and finishing the half with 10 points and six rebounds.
Jeff was outstanding, Self said. I thought he was a presence.
Robinson, who recovered quickly from being hit in the nose on the follow-through of Kelly in the first minute, played with his usual high motor and added nine points and eight rebounds in the first half. Robinson may have had the play of the half when he fought through a double team inside to dunk one-handed over Kelly to give KU a 28-26 lead.
Withey and Robinsons dominance in the paint was most clear on the boards, where the Jayhawks led 17-10 at halftime.
To complete a great first half, the Jayhawks got the Taylor from last years Big 12 tournament championship victory over Texas. Taylor guarded talented Duke freshman Austin Rivers most possessions and still found the energy to lead KU with 13 points and three assists. On Taylors second bucket, a crossover pull-up jump shot, he became KUs 54th 1,000-point scorer.
The Blue Devils stayed in the game thanks to making four of their first seven three-pointers. KU, leading 35-29, had a chance to build its lead to eight or nine with several possessions but couldnt come away with a bucket. Krzyzewski felt good about trailing just 35-31 at halftime.
I thought they outplayed us in the first half, Krzyzewski said. They were very good. We were kind of fortunate to be down only four.
The Blue Devils withstood back-to-back layups by Taylor to start the second half and tied the game at 43 when Taylor fouled Seth Curry while shooting a three and Curry made all three free throws.
From there, it was no exaggeration to say the teams traded blows like the hardwood heavyweights they are. Duke forward Mason Plumlee emerged in the second half, providing Robinson with a worthy foe.
This game deserved to come down to the final minute. The fact that Thornton, a guy who had attempted nine field goals coming into the game, made the two biggest shots just underscored what a classic this was.
That was one great basketball game, Self said. Two good teams playing, and it came down to one possession. Thats the way most great games do.
But give (Thornton) credit. I dont even know if he saw the rim when he shot it, but it was a heck of a shot. It was the ballgame. I mean, that was game. That was game.