Surprising enough, it was Strickland’s first career start at the point. This coming after a tough road trip to Maui and a bad loss at top-ranked Indiana.
With a bum shoulder sidelining the freshman Paige, and P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock playing through injuries, Strickland looked to kick start a team in need of a strong performance.
In the end, it’s hard to argue with the outcome, a 102-84 win over the Blazers. But getting there wasn’t as simple or easy as the final box score would have it appear.
Yes, the Heels managed to jump out to an early 10-3 lead, but for most of the first 20 minutes, the offensive flow was just that - offensive.
“It was a weird game,” Roy Williams said following the win. “You go to shootaround today and find out you don’t have Marcus (Paige - out with a jammed shoulder) and Dexter is not at the shootaround because he had a class assignment.”
Strickland didn't receive any advanced notice:
“I found out when I showed up," he said. "I didn't know. I think…one of the managers had called and told me. I talked to Marcus and he said his shoulder was bothering him so I was ready to step it up.”
Whether it was sluggishness from the recent road trip or the surprise of Paige missing in action tonight, the Carolina offense sputtered early and as Williams remarked, “it just wasn’t smooth.”
Carolina did manage to build a 35-21 lead with 2:01 left in the half, but the Blazers scored the final eight points to make it 35-29 Tar Heels at the break. In a system that relies on an inside out scheme to be efficient, Strickland’s four assists and one turnover couldn’t mask the 37 percent shooting (3-of-12 three pointers) and shortage of interior shots - just 12.
For seven minutes, the second half played out as had the first, but the turning point came as swift as a slammed clipboard and flying Sharpie. At the 13:16 mark, UNC's head coach blistered his team and later offered a short explanation with a simple meaning - 'do as I say.'
While the defense caused the explosion, Strickland led an increased offensive aggressiveness that UAB could not withstand.
“I was just mad and frustrated,” the senior said later. “After the time out, the next play I drove to get a layup. It was a growing experience for me because I would take that frustration and go out and make a mistake. I kept my composure and helped the team.”
McDonald said of Strickland’s aggressive approach in the second half: “Dex set a career high with nine assists and he was attacking the lane and they started sucking in. Once we saw that was working, we started doing it every time.
“Tonight, I though Dex did really well. His ability to attack the rim and cause people to collapse on him and his ability to kick it out really opened up the floor today.”
In all Strickland acquitted himself wel,l finishing with 11 points and four rebounds to go along with that career high nine assists. A game he was satisfied with in the end. “I think I did pretty well. 11 points. Four turnovers? That’s bad. Got to get that down to maybe one. I think I played well and everyone stepped up.
“We have to show if we lose Marcus, if we lose P.J., we are still able to win a game. I think it’s very important for us to bounce back and win a game.”
And whoever starts or plays the point or finishes, McDonald summed up the mindset of this team in early December.
“At the end of the day, like Coach said, Carolina has to play its game.”