Hitting 3-of-4 3-pointers and making a number of key plays, Tyler Thornton spaked Duke's comeback against the Tar Heels.
Elysia Su / The Chronicle
Hitting 3-of-4 3-pointers and making a number of key plays, Tyler Thornton spaked Duke's comeback against the Tar Heels.

Mike Krzyzewski said he thinks Tyler Thornton will be a coach one day, but there’s one other thing he sees in common between himself and Duke’s junior guard.

“I like him because he can get angry. I don’t think players get angry like they used to,” Krzyzewski said. “That comes easy for me.”

Trailing by as many as 10 in the first half to North Carolina (16-8, 6-5 in the ACC), the No. 2 Blue Devils (22-2, 9-2) needed somebody to get angry.

Thornton was that man, sparking Duke’s rally past the Tar Heels en route to a 73-68 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday night.

Although Thornton is often the forgotten man coming off the bench in Duke’s backcourt, he is no stranger to the spotlight. Last season, he hit a game-clinching 3-pointer in Hawaii to beat then-No. 14 Kansas at the Maui Invitational.

Thornton had yet to have such a memorable moment this season, but that changed against North Carolina when he was the only Blue Devil to hit a 3-pointer in the first half. He followed that up in the second half with the team’s second trey of the game.

Read more about this year's matchup between Duke and North Carolina

He then weaved a halfcourt bullet between two defenders to Quinn Cook for an easy layup, giving Duke a 44-43 lead—one it would not relinquish.

“I never wanted too much attention to begin with,” Thornton said. “My teammates, my coaches, they know what I bring to the table. When I get in the game, I just try to make an impact.”

Thornton finished with nine points on 3-for-4 shooting—all of which were from beyond the arc—only missing an attempt when he was forced to chuck up a 3-pointer in the game’s final minute with the shot clock expiring.

And in an ugly game, in which Duke trailed for the entire first half and turned it over a total of 17 times, the team needed somebody to do the little things. When the Blue Devils pushed their lead to eight points for the first time—off a Seth Curry 3-pointer—it was a second-chance opportunity, kept alive by none other than Thornton, who tapped the ball to Curry on the perimeter for the open look.

“It seems like in all big games, when it’s close, it’s Tyler who makes simple plays that aren’t going to be in the boxscore to put us over the top,” Curry said. “I got the credit for that three, but he was the one who made it happen with that tip-out.”

The Tar Heels refused to go away after that point but they never took the lead again, even though a number of Blue Devils were forced to contend with foul trouble. Mason Plumlee picked up his fourth foul with 6:41 left and Cook, Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon all eventually picked up their fourth fouls as well.

The foul trouble forced Thornton into the spotlight, even though the comeback once seemed improbable given Duke’s lack of offensive mojo. After Plumlee goofed up a lay-up on the game’s first possession, Duke turned the ball over on the next two times down as the Tar Heels raced out to a 5-0 lead.

Plumlee and Cook led Duke in scoring with 18 points each, but both contributed to the team’s early woes. They each recorded four turnovers in the first period, giving North Carolina 12 points off turnovers in the frame.

That all changed in the second half though, as the duo turned it over just once in the final 20 minutes. They were also critical to the team’s clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch, when Plumlee, Cook, Curry and Sulaimon combined to hit 10-of-10 from the line in the game’s final 3:16.

The teams went into the break with the Tar Heels leading 33-29, and the frustration for the Blue Devils was apparent. Duke assistant coach Steve Wojciechowski fumed at the referees before heading to the locker room, only to leave and have Krzyzewski spend the next minute of halftime giving the referee a lecture.

Krzyzewski, who was celebrating his 66th birthday Wednesday, was as emotional as the game was tense. After Sulaimon took a charge in the second half with the Blue Devils making their run, Krzyzewski gestured to the team and the fans emphatically.

Perhaps the best birthday present was somebody who can comiserate in anger.

“Anger is an emotion that gets you passed being tired and it gets you past a lot,” Krzyzewski said. “If anger destroys something bad, it’s good. If it destroys something good, it’s bad. His anger, his competitiveness was really good for us tonight.”