There’s no sugarcoating it: Mason Plumlee played awful—a-w-f-u-l—in the first half. To his credit, though, he was much more efficient down the stretch in the second as he stopped turning the ball over and made four key free throws in the final 2:30 of the game. Let’s take a closer look:
***James Michael McAdoo held Plumlee in check. He forced him to travel as Plumlee was posting him up and he played tight enough so that lay-ins and hook jump shots weren’t automatic. One of two times Plumlee did take McAdoo and finish a lay-up in the first half, McAdoo responded on the other end by blowing by Plumlee and finishing with a dunk. Plumlee’s other finish at McAdoo’s expense—a dunk—came after he flopped to the ground, giving Plumlee a free path to the basket.
McAdoo had to leave the floor for about three minutes when he was whistled for his second foul with 7:21 left in the first half. Jackson Simmons, a 6-foot-7 forward who has steadily earned for playing time for the Tar Heels, was then assigned to Plumlee. But Duke’s big man struggled to take advantage of the mismatch, and actually lost his footing on one attempt to post Simmons up, turning the ball over.
On Duke’s next offensive possession, Plumlee tried to take Hairston (all 6-foot-5 of him), and was whistled for an offensive foul.
Later in the first half, Simmons was back on Plumlee, and, instead of making a strong move to the basket, he settled for a short jumper, which missed (perhaps his two fouls had something to do with his hesitancy).
Plumlee’s third and final basket of the half came on a wide-open dunk, as Simmons had been sucked in to help on the driving Sulaimon, who kicked it to Plumlee. He finished the first half 3-of-8 from the field and 2-of-4 from the line for eight points. He also pulled down five rebounds and blocked a shot, but recorded four turnovers and was whistled for two fouls. It was, without a doubt, his worst half of the year.
The second half didn’t open well for Plumlee, as he was whistled with for his third foul less than a minute after play resumed, as James Michael McAdoo corralled an offensive rebound. From there, Plumlee backed off on defense, and UNC took advantage.
The next time down on the defensive end of the floor, McAdoo blew by Plumlee for an open lay-up. He did miss the shot, but Plumlee swung open like a door, backing away as McAdoo closed in. Plumlee didn’t crash the defensive boards on UNC’s next offensive possession, as Reggie Bullock grabbed an offensive rebound and tipped it in to give UNC a 36-31 lead.
But the play that sent Plumlee to the bench was when James Michael McAdoo drove the baseline, right by Plumlee (again) and finished with a behind-the-back, two handed slam (much like Maryland’s Alex Len, and Plumlee himself, have done previously in Cameron). Before he left the floor, he took a long jump shot from beyond the left elbow, that missed. At that point, he was 3-of-9 from the floor.
“I thought he was playing like he had three fouls,” Mike Krzyzewski said. “I thought McAdoo was just going at him, so McAdoo was either going to score or Mason was going to foul him.”
Plumlee sat for the next four minutes, and, in the interim, Duke cut the deficit from 38-31 to 43-42.
When he came back, his defense was still tentative. He opted not to help as Dexter Strickland drove free to the basket, making it a one-possession game at 50-47. But on the other end, Plumlee backed down McAdoo (who flopped again) and finished with a lay-up two put Duke back up by 5.
Neither team would score for the next four minutes until Plumlee sank a jump hook shot over McAdoo to give Duke a 54-47 lead with 7:37 remaining in the game. Less than a minute later, Plumlee picked up his fourth foul, as he attempted to battle Reggie Bullock for a rebound the Tar Heels guard had already corralled.
Plumlee’s fourth foul could have doomed Duke—it would be unrealistic to expect Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson to contain McAdoo for the final 6:40. Other than a brief exit ahead of the final media timeout, Plumlee stayed on the floor.
“We just made some dumb fouls and got ourselves into a lot of foul trouble,” Krzyzewski said. “We are really tired because we don’t have as many guys. I like my guys, but in a game like that you worry about foul trouble and fatigue. And we were able to have the discipline to stay in the game with foul trouble, and had enough toughness to get through the fatigue.”
Inexplicably, the Tar Heels didn’t constantly challenge him with drives to the basket, as they settled for jump shots instead. After picking up his fourth foul, he grabbed three defensive rebounds, hit another jump hook over McAdoo and—most critically—made all four of his free throw attempts.
“He kind of put us on his back at the end of the game – he hit some free throws, hit some big jump hooks,” Quinn Cook said. “When we all step up, we’re a great team.”