Strickland helps No. 9 North Carolina hold on after blowing big lead to beat Rutgers 81-67

By Aaron Beard, AP
Monday, December 28, 2009

No. 9 North Carolina beats Rutgers 81-67

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Freshman Dexter Strickland scored a season-high 18 points, including a key 3-pointer late, to help No. 9 North Carolina beat Rutgers 81-67 on Monday night.

Deon Thompson added 14 points for the Tar Heels (10-3), who played without injured fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard. North Carolina turned in a relatively ho-hum performance coming out of a five-day Christmas break, gradually increasing a six-point halftime lead to 17 midway through the second half.

But the Tar Heels never put away Rutgers (9-3), which hung in and even inched as close as four points with about 2 minutes left. Strickland responded by burying a 3 with 1:54 left that pushed the margin to 74-67 and ultimately helped the Tar Heels pull away late.

Mike Rosario scored 22 points for the Scarlet Knights, who were playing in their first road game of the season.

Rutgers came in with a six-game winning streak — the program’s longest in eight years — though it came largely against a soft schedule. That didn’t stop Rutgers from giving the Tar Heels and coach Roy Williams plenty of reason to feel frustrated.

The Scarlet Knights shot around 50 percent for much of the game. North Carolina shot 54 percent in the first half, but struggled from the field after halftime and missed plenty of shots in the paint that would have put some distance between the Tar Heels and the Scarlet Knights.

Ginyard’s absence certainly didn’t help matters. The versatile swingman, who is averaging 11 points per game, sprained his right ankle on a drive to the basket during Saturday’s practice, with the school announcing Monday afternoon he would sit out against Rutgers. He was on the bench, but walked at times with the aid of a crutch and is considered doubtful for Wednesday night’s home game against Albany.

By the final minutes of this one, Williams was so irked that he slammed his right hand down on his chair and slouched in his seat on the bench after the Tar Heels had to burn a timeout with a six-point lead and about 3 minutes left.

North Carolina helped itself with a 45-34 rebound advantage, including 17 on the offensive end that led to 17 second-chance points. The Tar Heels went 24 of 35 at the free throw line, including 25 attempts in the second half after getting 7-footers Hamady Ndiaye and Brian Okam into foul trouble and reaching the bonus just 4 minutes after the break.

Rutgers missed 20 of 23 3-point attempts, including several that could have put more pressure on the defending national champions in those final unsteady minutes.

The Tar Heels wore their throwback uniforms from the 1957 national championship season for the second time. North Carolina wore the uniforms — which include a touch of red on the shorts and jersey — in the opener against Florida International as part of a season-long celebration of the program’s centennial season.

will not be displayed