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UNC's Strickland falls short at home

NEWARK, N.J. -- After a 37-minute battle for the ages, two of college basketball's bluebloods -- North Carolina's Dexter Strickland and Kentucky's Brandon Knight -- embraced under the far basket. And within that embrace, a mutual respect resonated.

Strickland, who was born in Newark and raised between Rahway, Hillside and Linden before attending St. Patrick High School in Elizabeth, had gone toe-to-toe with Knight, the nation's top recruit, chasing him around the court, shadowing his every move. But in the end, no matter how hard he tried, no matter how much effort he put forth, Knight was too good. Too much to handle.

Strickland, considered one of the premier on-the-ball, denial defenders in the country, held his own against Knight, limiting the freshman guard to 7-for-18 shooting. But in crunch time, it was Knight who rose to the occasion and proved why he's considered an NBA lottery pick should he leave at the end of the season.

With the game tied at 67 and 2:52 remaining, Knight drained a 3-pointer over an outstretched Strickland right in front of the Kentucky bench, giving the Wildcats a 70-67 lead they'd never relinquish, as they went on to eliminate the Tar Heels, 76-69, in the East Regional final Sunday in front of 18,278 at the Prudential Center.

"I just told him, 'It was a great game, and keep playing your behind off,'" said Strickland, who was outscored 22-11 by Knight. "That was it. He said, 'Likewise,' and we just kept moving.

"It was a challenge. He's a great player. He stepped up and he made shots. I think we could've played better defense, but like I said, he's a great player. He just stepped up and made shots."

He did. That's why UNC's season ended, while Kentucky's continued. The Wildcats advanced to their first Final Four since 1998. Still, Strickland left it all out there on the court. His "home court," so to speak. And according to Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, the 20-year-old sophomore product out of New Jersey has nothing to be ashamed of.

"I thought it was a fantastic, fantastic job by Dexter," Williams said. "Obviously, Brandon is the focal point of their offense, and for Dexter to do that for 37 minutes is as tough a challenge as I've ever had anybody guard. And I don't know if I've ever seen anybody do a better job of it than him.

"Everybody wants guys to shoot the ball and score points, but Dexter made his decision that he was gonna be a big-time defender for this team. That's what's great about this team. All they cared about this year was the name on the front. I can't imagine anybody playing better defense on a player like that than Dexter did today."

Although he never got as much recognition as offensive catalysts Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson, Strickland was just as big a reason as anyone for the Tar Heels' turnaround in 2010-11 after failing to qualify for the NCAA tournament last season, and having to settle for a berth in the NIT.

Whether it was taking over the backup point guard duties after Larry Drew II quit the team, fighting through screens on defense or matching up against the opposition's best wing player, Strickland was ready and able to meet the challenge. In UNC's last two victories of the season, he helped limit Washington's Isaiah Thomas (5-for-15) and Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom (2-for-9) to just 7-for-24 shooting.

And that enabled Strickland to come home, back to Newark, the place where he learned the rough-and-tumble nature of basketball when he was growing up. He just didn't want his season to end there, in front of more than 50 supportive friends and family members.

"It was a great feeling just coming home and seeing my family and playing in front of my friends," said Strickland, who had nine of his points in the second half, while adding four rebounds, three steals and two assists. "I felt comfortable. Unfortunately we lost, but I had a great time here."

It was Strickland's heroics on offense (four layups), along with Barnes' surge from that end, that enabled the Tar Heels to mount a comeback from an eight-point hole. Barnes sparked a 10-2 run with eight straight points, and Zeller knotted things up at 67 apiece with two free throws, which set up Knight's cold-blooded, long-range basket from the right wing.

"I was confident," Knight said. "Like I said, me and my teammates are hard workers. We came in early to practice to shoot. But it wasn't only me that made big shots."

UNC had a chance to get within one at the 2:33 mark, but Strickland missed a putback layup. He thought there should've been a foul called on the play.

"I did, but again, I don't want to make that an excuse," Strickland said. "Maybe I should've kicked it out so we could reset the offense."

The Tar Heels did slice their deficit to one, 70-69, after Zeller tipped home Strickland's miss with 1:52 left. However, those were the last points UNC would muster, as DeAndre Liggins' 3-pointer with 35 seconds remaining made it a two-possession game, and Knight iced it with three free throws.

"The resiliency this team showed was unbelievable," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "It got late, they tied it up and we didn't back away. ... It was just a great fight -- a dogfight kind of game."

That much was epitomized by the Strickland-Knight clash.

Strickland said after the game he didn't know where he'd rank Knight as far as players he's matched up against in his career -- he defended Brandon Jennings at the Adidas Nations Camp, Tyreke Evans, Kemba Walker (in a pickup game), along with his former St. Patrick teammates Kyrie Irving and Michael Gilchrist in practice -- but he said Knight couldn't touch O.J. Mayo.

"He dropped 47 on me," Strickland said.

Still, Strickland called Knight "a special" player going in. And for 37 minutes, as special as Knight was, Strickland was just as special. He limited Knight to just 3-for-9 shooting and eight points in the first half. But Knight got the better of Strickland in the second half, scoring 14 points on 4-for-9 from the field, and in the end, that was the difference.

That's why UNC is going home.

But make no mistake about it: With his heart, determination and relentlessness on the defensive end of the floor, Dexter Strickland made everyone in New Jersey proud.

And he has nothing to be ashamed of.

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPN NewYork.com.