After turning it over four times in the first half, Mason Plumlee did not cough it up once in the second period and battled through foul trouble to record 18 points and 11 rebounds.
Caroline Rodriguez / The Chronicle
After turning it over four times in the first half, Mason Plumlee did not cough it up once in the second period and battled through foul trouble to record 18 points and 11 rebounds.

After first half struggles, senior captain Mason Plumlee showed North Carolina (16-8, 6-5 in the ACC) why he’s a National Player of the Year candidate Wednesday night when the Blue Devils (22-2, 9-2) snuck past their biggest rivals. The reigning ACC Player of the Week has started each of Duke’s 23 games this year, but he probably wished he didn’t against the Tar Heels. He picked up two fouls in the period and finished the half with four turnovers.

Although the foul trouble plagued him throughout the game—Plumlee came back to lead Duke with 11 rebounds and tied sophomore guard Quinn Cook with 18 points, recording another double-double to follow up on his performance Sunday at Boston College.

“We made some dumb fouls and got ourselves in a lot of foul trouble,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’ve turned it over more than we have the entire year.”

Twelve of the Tar Heels’ 33 first-half points came off turnovers as Duke struggled to generate any offensive rhythm.

While Plumlee played more than any other Blue Devil during the first half, notching 19 minutes on the court, he epitomized the team’s offensive struggles. In addition to the first-half turnovers, he finished the period going 3-for-8 from the field—including a miss on the game’s first possession, an ugly attempt that set the tone for Duke’s first-half struggles.

“[The Tar Heels] were getting out running—they really pushed the ball... and they got some easy open looks and some dunks, but we made the adjustment,” Plumlee said.

Foul trouble plagued the Blue Devils throughout the game, with 22 total fouls, 15 of which came in the second half.

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

By the end of the game, Cook, junior Josh Hairston, Plumlee and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon had four fouls each, getting dangerously close to leaving the game.

“I wanted to stay aggressive, but at the same time I didn’t want to come out of the game,” Sulaimon said.

Despite Plumlee collecting two more fouls during the second half—coming to a total of four with 6:40 remaining—he did not foul out, even with a close call with less than three minutes remaining in the game when North Carolina sophomore P.J. Hairston tried to take the charge on Plumlee.

“We started the half and Mason got his third and we were down 38-31, and I subbed for Mason,” Krzyzewski said. “He was playing like he had three fouls, and [North Carolina’s James Michael] McAdoo was just going at him. McAdoo was either going to score or Mason was going to foul him, so we took him out.” Plumlee also led the team in free throws in the second half, going a perfect 4-for-4, bringing his game total up to 75 percent—higher than his season average of 59 percent.

“I just get up and knock them down, I shoot them the same in the first half as in the end of the game,” Plumlee said about his free throws.

Plumlee was similarly clutch against Boston College, when he hit 3-of-4 free throws in the game’s final minute to give the Blue Devils a 62-61 victory.

And not only was Wednesday’s win against the Tar Heels a thrilling comeback against a rival, it also solidified the team’s position in the mind of Krzyzewski, who saw the potential for his team to collapse after its 27-point loss to Miami early in the ACC season.

“It’s easy to go south, even if you’re trying,” Krzyzewski said. “I know we’re going to be an NCAA team now, but you still have to punch tickets... so we’re punching our ticket, we’re going to be there. Now how do we bring our team along so when we are there, we might be able to do well? We have to run our race and not worry about anyone else’s race.”