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March 5, 2011When Duke and North Carolina met over three weeks ago, the Tar Heels went into halftime with a 43-29 lead, exuding a brashness and bravado that is often absent when visitors step inside Cameron Indoor Stadium.
But over the next 20 minutes, Duke senior guard Nolan Smith scored 22 of his game-high 34 points, and by the end, he was the one smiling and chest-bumping his teammates as he propelled the No. 5 Blue Devils past the then-No. 20 Tar Heels, 79-73.
"He was just a maniac about trying to get the thing done," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said Friday.
"It was just a ferocious, vicious, attacking mentality offensively. He didn't care, wanted to take the big shots, didn't care what happened the next possession. It was one of the most impressive performances I've ever seen."
Shutting down Smith is essentially like stopping time-it just can't be done.
But if North Carolina is going to pull off the upset Saturday night at the Smith Center and win the ACC regular-season title, it is going to need to limit the National Player of the Year candidate's efficiency.
"You hope you can cut down his percentage, and you hope you get lucky and he misses some shots," Williams said.
Williams will put that responsibility largely in the hands of sophomore guard Dexter Strickland, who was limited in the first match up by foul trouble.
Strickland said he, ironically, will try to limit his own aggressiveness on the defensive end, and will instead slide his feet more to avoid fouling Smith.
"He's a great player-I'll give him that," Strickland said. "He's a good player, and what we got to do is just play great defense, not just myself but everybody on the team.
"Just deny him the ball and don't let him catch it in the first place. Let other people create."
Smith has averaged over 21 points on 45 percent shooting in his last three games against the Tar Heels.
He enters Saturday night's match up averaging 21.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists on the season, but perhaps more importantly has brought leadership and stability to a Duke team that has been without its star freshman point guard, Kyrie Irving, since Dec. 5 because of a toe injury.
"To me, he's had the best year of anybody in the league. To me, he's had the best year of anybody in college basketball," Williams said. "I do not vote, but if I were to vote for Associated Press National Player of the Year, Nolan Smith would get my vote."
Added freshman forward Harrison Barnes: "There's not many players in the country you can say have had a better season than him, and he's been their go-to-guy."
"He's a great player. He does a lot of great things. He's their engine, and the way we look at it is if we can stop their engine, we have a good chance in this game," added point guard Kendall Marshall.
In many ways, the opportunity the Tar Heels have Saturday night is hard to fathom.
Entering the final regular-season game last year, North Carolina was 16-14 and a certified lock for the N.I.T.
And after a rocky start to this season that featured disappointing losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt and Illinois in November alone, it seemed the Tar Heels could be headed down a similar path.
But in ACC play, they have gelled defensively, become more efficient offensively and have hit timely shots, most recently by Barnes Wednesday against Florida State.
Now, a team that starts two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior stands just one win away from an ACC regular-season championship.
"We've been playing very well," Strickland said.
"And I think the way this team feels now-if I can speak for everybody else-we're confident we can beat anybody."