CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Not possible, the naysayers said.
Not with center Carlos Boozer sitting on the sideline in khakis, a button-down shirt, a cast on his right foot and crutches underneath both arms. Not after a 91-80 loss to Maryland five days earlier at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Not on North Carolina's home floor. Simply not possible.
Leave it to Shane Battier and Jason Williams to make the impossible an unexpected reality.
Duke's National Player of the Year candidates combined for 58 points as the No. 2 Blue Devils used their overwhelming quickness and deft outside touch to dispatch the fourth-ranked Tar Heels, 95-81, yesterday in front of a sellout crowd of 21,750 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
With the victory, Duke (26-4, 13-3) earned a share of the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference championship with the Tar Heels, making it the fifth consecutive year that the Blue Devils have either shared the title or won it outright.
North Carolina (23-5, 13-3 in the ACC) will still be the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament by virtue of its regular-season sweep of Maryland.
"We're Duke, and even though people say we're underdogs, we knew what to expect from ourselves," Battier said. "And even without Carlos, we knew we had a legitimate shot of winning this game. And so that was our mind-set. It just makes it that much sweeter to prove those wrong who doubted us."
The talk in the days leading up to the game centered on the status of Boozer, who fractured his right foot in the loss against the Terrapins.
As Duke's only legitimate physical presence down low, his absence promised to open up the inside for North Carolina's trio of big men: center Brendan Haywood and forwards Kris Lang and Julius Peppers.
Even with Boozer's replacement, sophomore Casey Sanders, who played only 11 minutes and fouled out with 8:50 left in the game, the Tar Heels were never able to capitalize on what should have been a huge advantage inside. Haywood and Lang both played just seven minutes apiece after halftime, as North Carolina coach Matt Doherty decided to go with a smaller, quicker lineup to match up against Duke's speedy perimeter players.
He moved small forward Jason Capel to the power forward spot and brought in Max Owens to fill in for Capel at small forward. He even played freshman guard Brian Morrison, little-used in recent games, for nine minutes at both guard spots for speed purposes.
"It's tough to play catch-up against them regardless of who you have in the game, but we had to go to a smaller lineup, so we couldn't take advantage of our size," Doherty said.
Instead, Battier and Williams took advantage of them.
Williams opened the game hot from the outside, finishing the first half with 18 points on 7-for-14 shooting, including 4-for-7 from behind the three-point line to carry Duke to a 42-40 halftime lead. He showed no signs of a letdown after halftime, opening the second half by stealing the ball on North Carolina's first possession and taking it to the other end for a lay-in. He fed Chris Duhon for a layup on a fast break, converted another lay-in off a steal and knocked down a three-pointer to give Duke a 53-47 lead with 16:37 left in the game.
Williams, the conference's second-leading scorer behind North Carolina sophomore shooting guard Joseph Forte, ended up with a game-high 33 points, hitting seven of 13 three-pointers. He also added nine assists.
As usual, his partner was Battier. The senior overcame a difficult first half to go out in typical Battier style in his final regular-season game, finishing with 25 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks and four steals. He scored eight points in a span of 3:12 to give the Blue Devils a 70-57 lead with 12:17 remaining in the game, but it was his dominance defensively that again proved most valuable to his team.
Four of his blocks came in the second half, including one off Capel that led directly to a Duhon lay-in, giving the Blue Devils a 87-73 lead with 5:18 left in the game. Battier's menacing presence allowed Duke's perimeter defenders to take more chances. Even though the Tar Heels hit seven of 18 three-pointers in the game, they shot only 35 percent from the field in the second half. Forte, meanwhile, led North Carolina with 21 points on a dismal 7-for-21 from the field.
There's no question that Battier is the heart of one of the best defenses in the nation -- the player around whom the Blue Devils' entire system revolves.
"I don't know; I'll let other people decide on that," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said when asked if Battier deserved to be National Player of the Year. "I'm just pleased I coached him for four years. He's a great basketball player. He does so many things. Whatever your game plan is, you can be a little bit more innovative when you have somebody like him trying to make it happen out on the court."
DUKE--Battier 9-15 3-4 25, Dunleavy 5-13 5-6 16, Sanders 1-1 0-0 2, Williams 13-27 0-3 33, Duhon 5-11 3-4 15, James 2-5 0-0 4, Love 0-0 0-0 0, Christensen 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 35-72 11-17 95. NORTH CAROLINA--Brooker 0-0 0-0 0, Everett 0-1 0-0 0, Haywood 5-12 2-3 12, Owens 3-4 1-1 8, Curry 3-11 0-0 7, Capel 4-10 1-2 11, Forte 7-21 5-6 21, Lang 3-6 1-2 7, Peppers 1-2 5-7 7, Boone 0-0 0-0 0, Morrison 2-2 3-4 8. Totals 28-69 18-25 81.
Halftime--Duke, 42-40. 3-point goals--Duke 14-38 (Williams 7-13, Battier 4-10, Duhon 2-6, Dunleavy 1-8, James 0-1); NCarolina 7-18 (Forte 2-4, Capel 2-5, Morrison 1-1, Owens 1-2, Curry 1-6). Fouled out--Sanders. Rebounds--Duke 41 (Battier 11); NCarolina 41 (Capel 11). Assists--Duke 16 (Williams 9); NCarolina 16 (Curry 5). Total fouls--Duke 19; NCarolina 15. A--21,750.