Strickland makes impact in hometown

NEWARK, N.J. -- With 18:55 remaining in the second half, North Carolina sophomore guard Dexter Strickland brought down the house.

His house.

Or at least it felt that way at the Prudential Center on Friday night, with more than 40 of Strickland's family and friends in attendance.

After picking off a pass at midcourt, the New Jersey native -- the only New Jersey native of the 48 college basketball players on four teams competing in the East Regional -- burst down the court like an NFL running back for an uncontested hammer dunk, giving the Tar Heels a 31-point lead over Marquette.

UNC was well on its way.

Strickland ended up making his impact felt on both ends of the court in the Tar Heels' 81-63 blowout of the Golden Eagles in the Sweet 16. The St. Patrick High School (Elizabeth, N.J.) standout, who was born in Newark and raised between Rahway, Hillside and Linden, ended up scoring eight points, getting four steals steals, dishing out three assists and holding Marquette's leading scorer, Darius Johnson-Odom (16 points per game), to just seven points on 2-for-9 shooting.

"I felt comfortable," Strickland said. "It's just a great feeling to have my family and friends in the stands supporting me. It's a great feeling to have a big game in your hometown. It's just a great feeling."

Coming into the matchup, Marquette was talking a lot of smack, according to Strickland.

And that made the win even sweeter.

As if contributing and coming up in the clutch time and time again in your homecoming isn't enough.

"They were talking a lot of trash, saying they were stronger than us and had more mental toughness than us," Strickland said. "And that just motivated everyone to play even harder."

Strickland inflicted much of his damage on defense in the first half, forcing Johnson-Odom into a 1-for-7 performance from the field as UNC used a 19-0 spurt midway through the opening 20 minutes to open up a 40-15 lead at the break.

"Dexter did a phenomenal job defensively," his backcourt mate, Kendall Marshall said. "We talked about these type of games when we're playing in someone's hometown as bragging rights. Dexter has bragging rights right now because we came to Jersey and got a win. We'd like to finish it off for him again on Sunday. He did a great job of getting in the passing lanes, getting steals and finishing in the open court."

He did that twice out of the gate in the second half.

Forty-nine seconds in, Strickland ripped off a Johnson-Odom pass and went coast-to-coast for a nifty layup, which prompted a visibly frustrated Buzz Williams, Marquette's coach, to call a timeout in order to stop the bleeding.

But it didn't stop there.

Sixteen seconds later, Strickland intercepted a Jae Crowder inbounds pass at the timeline and flushed it at the other end, igniting the sellout crowd into a frenzy and giving the Tar Heels a commanding 46-15 cushion.
"Dexter, as I said all along, is our best defender on the perimeter. He really does a nice job," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "He has tremendous speed and quickness. He takes pride in doing that. But Dexter was huge for us."

So now it all comes down to this for UNC (29-7). One game is all that separates the Tar Heels, a team that went 20-17 last season and had to settle for an NIT berth, from a trip to the Final Four.

"I think this team has come a long way," Strickland said. "Losing Larry Drew II earlier in the season was tough, and everything was going really bad for us. But I think that brought us all together, and I'm just glad we're here."

That's why Strickland decided to take his talents to UNC in the first place. Not only did it feel like home, but it also felt like a place where he'd be able to bring home some hardware -- in the form of a national championship.

"We have everybody believing in one another," Strickland said. "We're at a stage now where we have to play well, and I think everybody wants to play well and wants to go to the Final Four and win a national championship."

Strickland came home Friday night.

He played in front of his parents, Dexter L. Strickland and Sherrone Halsey, the two people who made him who he is today.

He played in front of other relatives and friends. He played in an arena located in the same city as his birth, the same city his grandmother grew up in.

The same city where he played streetball as a 12-year-old kid to learn toughness.

And yet, it still hasn't all sunk in for the Jersey product. Because there's still unfinished business.

"Until we win a national championship, I don't think it will," Strickland said. "I'm just glad [my dad] is here. Everybody just being supportive and coming out to watch me play is a great feeling."

Winning on Sunday in the Elite Eight and advancing to the Final Four will probably be an even better one.

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.