Photo by Sally Sather

Senior Night is so special in college basketball. I think Coach Smith started the tradition way back in the 1970s, when his seniors were not only recognized before the game they also got to start even if they were non-scholarship players.

Dexter Strickland will have the stage to himself Saturday night as the only scholarship senior on the Carolina roster this season. Leslie McDonald would have been if he hadn’t re-shirted one year with an injury and, of course, John Henson would be a senior if he did not turn pro after his junior year.

Dexter has had an excellent career and is playing his best basketball right now. He has 31 assists and three turnovers in the last six games and has moved up to fifth in the country in assist-turnover ratio. He has played very unselfish basketball for the sake of the team and he deserves a big thank you from our fans, as well as walk-on senior Frank Tanner.

Every other year, our Senior Game is against Duke, which makes it very difficult to go out with a victory since both teams are usually very good. My senior game was 35 years ago, and we played a Duke team that was on its way to the ACC tournament championship and Final Four. When Tom Zaliagiris and I went out to center court before the game, I could not keep from crying. I was so sad my college career was coming to an end and so appreciative of our fans.

We were playing Duke for first place in the ACC regular season, and I remember Coach Smith made me sit out the game at N.C. State three days earlier with a sprained left wrist. The way the standings worked out, we were going to have to beat Duke to win the regular season, win or lose against State. So I sat out and Ged Doughton started at point guard and almost led us to victory in Raleigh.

When Saturday came around, adrenalin took over for me and Mike O’Koren, who was also playing on a badly sprained ankle. Duke had a great team with Mike Gminski, Jim Spanarkel and freshmen Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard. They were probably a little better than us and had won our first meeting at Cameron earlier in the season.

But we hung around most of the game and finally rallied on a couple of baskets by Mike to take the lead. I had a chance to put the game away with a couple of free throws and fortunately I made them both. I never felt my sprained wrist the whole game and was able to get some good shots and finished with 34 points. But they would not have meant anything if we didn’t win.

After the game, our sports information director Rick Brewer followed me as I ran off the court. He was hoping I would stay out there a little longer and celebrate with the fans. But I was so happy we won and won the ACC regular season that I couldn’t wait to get into the locker room with my teammates and coaches.

We still had games to play in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, but I’ll never forget taking off my uniform for the last time in Carmichael Auditorium. Coming to Carolina was the best decision I ever made, and the four years seemed to go so fast. I am sure that’s how Dexter will feel Saturday night.

I hope he can go out with a win against a great Duke team, just like I did.

Phil Ford was a three-time All-American at UNC, 1978 ACC Player of the Year, NBA Rookie of the Year, an NBA all-star, and was recently inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.