With Hairston not at full strength due to his left hand injury and McAdoo limited by foul trouble, Strickland scored 11 first-half points – his most in a half all season – to help North Carolina build a 37-32 lead at the break. With Paige limited to 10 second-half minutes due to foul trouble, Strickland (15 points, 4 assists, 3 turnovers) switched roles and focused on facilitating instead of scoring.
“They had a big guy on me, so I just took advantage, and in the second half, I got my team involved,” Strickland told reporters during his postgame interview.
When Paige (8 points, 2 assists) returned with 4:09 to play and UNC clinging to an ever-shrinking lead, the Marion, Iowa native promptly responded to a pair of turnovers by his teammates with a short baseline jumper to increase the cushion to three points. With 36 seconds remaining, Paige down the right side of the lane and lifted a difficult floater over 7-foot-1 Alex Len to give UNC a 77-72 lead.
“We were trying to get a good shot and a couple of things broke down, so I felt like I needed to make a play and get aggressive,” Paige said. “They didn’t send another defender and our guys were covered so I tried to take advantage of the opportunity. I was on the bench for a while, but I didn’t feel the need to force the issue. I just let the game come to me and a couple of opportunities presented themselves.”
The duo’s statistics were pedestrian. Bullock’s stat line – 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists and no turnovers – stands out on the box score while UNC’s starting backcourt’s merge with the various other numbers, aside from Strickland’s point total.
Statistics, however, can only tell you so much.
Their ability to fill in the gaps around Bullock, Hairston and McAdoo, as well as their increasingly steady hands directing the offense, has been a critical element during UNC’s late-season run. Without their cohesive efforts, Maryland may have been able to complete its rally with various factors working against the Tar Heels.
They have learned to play off one another, and the mutual respect is apparent in their comments directed at each other.
“He understands what Coach wants and he’s understood that since Day One, which has helped me especially coming in and trying to learn the system,” Paige said of Strickland. “And even today he did a great job, because he’s able to play both guard spots, which has helped me tremendously…
“He’s done a great job of leading this team. If I have to sit out in foul trouble or something goes wrong like that, Dexter does a great job of sliding over to the 1 and running the offense.”
As for Paige’s progression, Strickland offered this: “He’s grown a lot and he’s still getting better. That’s the scary part. Just with him having the confidence to step up and make those two big shots was big for us.”
North Carolina’s 2012 postseason hopes were derailed by injuries in the backcourt. Improved play in UNC’s current backcourt opens more postseason doors than most anyone thought possible two months ago.