NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Marcus Thornton surged up through a crowd underneath, tipped home a missed shot and then stood under the basket, letting out a triumphant roar with his arms clenched at his side.
The crowd went wild with him as the Hornets closed in on the greatest comeback in franchise history. For the popular former LSU star who’d been relegated to the bench more often than not lately, it was a moment to savor.
“Just happy, man. Just happy to be out there on the court with those guys again, playing as a team and contributing,” Thornton said. “I credit my teammates for that. They never let me put my head down when I was going through stuff or whatever. Coaches never let me put my head down, told me to keep it up and be ready when your name’s called.”
Thornton scored 17 of his season-high 19 points in the second half, including 13 during a crucial 6-minute span in the third quarter, and the Hornets overcame a 23-point second-half deficit for a 94-91 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night.
Chris Paul led the Hornets with 22 points and 11 assists, and afterward praised Thornton for staying focused and prepared even though he hadn’t played in three of the past five games.
“That happens in this league. He knows that. But I think that showed a lot about him and his resolve,” Paul said. “He didn’t give up. He knows we’re going to need him and the next game might not call for 25 minutes from him, but we need that same energy and that was great for him. When you’re called on, you’ve got to be ready to play and he was.”
David West added 11 points and Emeka Okafor and Willie Green each scored 10 for New Orleans, which won for only the fourth time in 13 games.
Tyreke Evans scored 22 points and Beno Udrih 20 for the Kings, who led 66-43 on Donte Greene’s 3-pointer with 8:48 to go in the third quarter.
DeMarcus Cousins and Carl Landry each scored 13 for Sacramento, which has lost 11 of 12.
Thornton checked in and almost single-handedly turned things around right after Greene’s third 3 had the game looking like a blowout in Sacramento’s favor. Thornton hit a pair of 3s and two driving layups during a 20-4 run that got the Hornets and the crowd back into the game at 72-65.
Right about then, Kings coach Paul Westphal could sense the game slipping away.
“You could feel it happening. We just couldn’t reverse it,” Westphal said. “The defensive intensity we had earlier wasn’t there. Excessive fouling put us in the penalty early. We didn’t move the ball effectively. When we did get stops, we didn’t do a good job of keeping them off the boards. They got second shots. We didn’t have anybody make a big play for us.
“Maybe it’s fatigue, maybe it’s inexperience, maybe it’s breaks in the game,” the coach added. “I tend to think it’s a little bit of all of them.”
Paul’s pull-up jumper in the lane as he was fouled and Green’s jumper helped New Orleans pull to 77-74 early in the fourth quarter, and the Hornets finally tied it with a 6-0 spurt capped by Marco Belinelli’s free throws with 5:01 to go.
Omri Casspi’s 3 and Cousins’ tip-in helped Sacramento pull back in front 88-85 with 3:36 to go, then New Orleans responded with the next six points, highlighted by Thronton’s off-balance, fast-break layin and Paul’s driving layup to make it 91-88.
The Kings failed to score on two straight possessions — Cousins’ miss and traveling violation — and then Thornton punctuated his memorable night with a tip-in to make it 93-88.
“He gave us a spark. The opportunity was there and he showed up,” Hornets coach Monty Williams said. “He’s still a work in progress on defense, but his offense can cover up a lot of mistakes.”
Sacramento dominated early, led by Evans’ strong return from a one-game absence because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
The Kings outshot the Hornets 58 percent (26 of 45) to 31.7 percent (13 of 41) in the first half, closing the second quarter with Evans’ short fall-away and Landry’s dunk to make it 57-41 at halftime.
Evans only wished the Kings could have kept it up.
“From the looks of it, we’re not all on the same page,” Evans said. “We have too much going on. We’re out there in the second half, we lose focus. Everybody forgets about the plays. We showed the type of basketball we can play (at times). We just have to play together.”
Notes: The Hornets are 10-3 at home. … This marked the second meeting of the season, with New Orleans winning the first in Sacramento 75-71 on Nov. 21. … Announced attendance was 13,325, including $30,000 in tickets purchased by an association of local businesses trying to build support for the team.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)