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Originally published March 20, 2011 at 8:37 PM | Page modified March 20, 2011 at 8:52 PM

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Other voices: UNC's unsung hero led defensive effort on Isaiah Thomas

The whistle blew with 5. 4 seconds left on the clock. North Carolina was up by a single point, about to face a one-and-one free-throw situation in a taut NCAA tournament game against Washington Sunday.

The Charlotte Observer

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The whistle blew with 5.4 seconds left on the clock. North Carolina was up by a single point, about to face a one-and-one free-throw situation in a taut NCAA tournament game against Washington Sunday.

Who do you want on the line if you're a Tar Heel fan?

The name "Dexter Strickland" likely doesn't spring to mind. Strickland is the fifth Beatle on a Tar Heel squad whose other four starters all received some sort of all-conference recognition.

But Strickland made both free throws — right after Kendall Marshall had missed the front end of a one-and-one — and gave the Tar Heels the final two points of a madcap 86-83 win over Washington.

North Carolina never would have won this one without their maligned shooting guard, who didn't make a single field goal in three ACC tournament contests but played beautifully Sunday in Charlotte.

"Down the stretch, you have to have confidence and believe in yourself and be ready to take those big shots," Strickland said.

Strickland finished with 13 points, six rebounds and zero turnovers. He also harassed Washington guard Isaiah Thomas into a 5-for-15 shooting afternoon.

The sophomore fought through the pain that will require knee surgery in the offseason to play one of his best overall games for North Carolina.

"I think Dexter has taken a lot of criticism because all the other four (starters) are getting so much attention," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "Everybody is saying Dexter is the weak link. ... I love the fact that he was successful today. And to be honest with you, when he went to the free-throw line, I said, 'This youngster is going to make this.' I couldn't be happier with anybody else on our team stepping up there. I just love that situation for him."

Strickland has his problems. He's such an inconsistent jump shooter that there is an audible gasp from Tar Heels fans when he launches three-pointers. And if there's a charging call on a North Carolina player, you can almost bet it's on Strickland.

But there are several reasons that Strickland starts for a Sweet 16 team. He would probably win a dunk contest if the Tar Heels held one right now, even with that knee. He can be a devastating offensive player in transition. And he is the Tar Heels' best on-the-ball perimeter defender.

Said Tyler Zeller: "Dexter did a spectacular job on Isaiah Thomas."

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Said Harrison Barnes: "Those were two really big free throws at the end Dexter hit. Without him, we wouldn't have won. You could tell he was extremely frustrated with himself after the ACC tournament, but he has worked on his game a lot in the past week since then."

There were other reasons North Carolina squeaked this one out, of course.

But no one was more important than Strickland. The Tar Heels will head to Strickland's home state of New Jersey this week for the Sweet 16 in large part because of the player who keeps getting criticized but who was very worthy of praise Sunday.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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