CLEMSON, S.C. — After suffering a season-ending knee injury a season ago, Dexter Strickland labored through North Carolina’s preseason conditioning drills, and he struggled through much of the first half of the season.
But his late-season transformation – and that of the Tar Heels – continued on Thursday night during UNC’s 68-59 victory against Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Strickland before his injury was the Heels’ best perimeter defender and one of their fastest players. But in September UNC coach Roy Williams watched Strickland hobble through running drills and one thought crossed Williams’ mind: Strickland isn’t ready.
He’s come a ways since that point, and since struggling through the early part of ACC play. It wasn’t that long ago when Strickland failed to score a point – or accumulate any other statistic other than one missed shot from the field – inn UNC’s loss at home against Miami on Jan. 10.
But Strickland’s improvement in recent weeks has coincided with that of his team since UNC (20-8, 10-5 ACC) went to a smaller, four-guard starting lineup. Strickland on Thursday night led UNC with 16 points, and his two breakaway dunks during the second half helped the Heels maintain a comfortable second-half lead.
Clemson (13-14, 5-10) and UNC were tied at 18 midway through the first half, but the Tar Heels closed the half on a 20-6 run and led 38-24 at halftime. The Heels’ lead remained in double figures until the Tigers cut their deficit to nine points with about 80 seconds remaining.
After P.J. Hairston missed the front end of a one-and-one, Clemson cut UNC’s lead to seven with about one minute to play. From there, though, the Tigers came no closer.
In addition to Strickland’s 16 points, which were a season-high for him in an ACC game, Reggie Bullock finished with 12 for UNC. James Michael McAdoo, the Tar Heels’ sophomore forward, added 11 points and Marcus Paige, the freshman point guard, scored eight of his 10 points in the first half.
The first 20 minutes were smoother for UNC, which won its fourth consecutive game – all with that smaller, quicker starting lineup that has received so much attention in recent weeks. The Heels were sloppy throughout much of the second half but it didn’t matter all that much against Clemson, which shot just 40 percent.
UNC, meanwhile, shot 47 percent from the field and made eight of its 22 3-point attempts. The Heels outscored Clemson 13-2 in points off turnovers, and 13-0 in fast break points.
Strickland, looking like his old self, helped create some of those while UNC maintained its cushion in the second half.