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Strickland fuels St. Patrick win over Lincoln

NEW YORK -- Dexter Strickland shrugged his shoulders. The fact he played a near-flawless game Friday night didn't matter; the victory did.

Strickland, the talented guard from No. 3 St. Patrick High, of Elizabeth, N.J., had just completed a 6-for-6 shooting performance against Lincoln (Brooklyn) but was thinking big picture.

St. Patrick's 63-58 victory over Lincoln was satisfying, but Strickland was focused on the next game and beyond.

"We're going to be tough to beat," said Strickland, who scored 16 points, grabbed five rebounds and made two steals in 22 minutes.

And so was Strickland, who learned Friday that he had been selected to participate in the McDonald's All-American Game on April 1 in Coral Gables, Fla. After nursing a sore knee that limited him to "75 percent of my ability" for most of the season, Strickland is starting to live up to his No. 21 ranking in the ESPNU 100.

Last week, he scored 21 points in a lopsided victory over local rival No. 8 St. Benedict's (Newark). He suffered a temporary setback Feb. 6 when he required five stitches over his eyebrow, then missed St. Patrick's 39-35 win over Pennsylvania power Pennsbury (Fairless Hills) on Sunday.

After the win Friday, Strickland's focus quickly shifted to Saturday night's game against Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.), No. 2 in the ESPN RISE FAB 50 rankings, at the Prime Time Shootout in Trenton, N.J. Last year, St. Patrick won 63-54, limiting All-American guard Brandon Jennings -- who went on to play professionally in Italy -- to 27 points.

"We have a selfless bunch of players; everyone has a role. You might not know all the players, but they play together," St. Patrick coach Kevin Boyle said.

Back-to-back games against ranked opponents are commonplace for the Celtics.

"We have the same mentality for all the games," Boyle said. "We play good team defense, and that makes our offense better."

And beyond that, as forward Paris Bennett said, "We want to go undefeated the rest of the way and win the TOC [New Jersey State Tournament of Champions]."

On Friday, St. Patrick (20-2) inched closer to the postseason, which begins next month. The Celtics are in New Jersey's "group of death" with heavyweights Paterson Catholic and defending TOC champion St. Anthony in Non-Public B North.

St. Patrick used a balanced scoring attack, with four players hitting double figures, and were helped by the cold shooting of Lincoln's Lance Stephenson.

The matchup was the feature game of the Nike Super 6 Showdown at Fordham University's Rose Hill Gymnasium before 2,500. Previous Super 6 events were held at Madison Square Garden, but this year's was played at a quaint throwback gym in the Bronx.

Lincoln (17-8), which recently clinched the Public School Athletic League Brooklyn AA Conference regular-season championship with a 13-1 mark, has played an ultracompetitive nonconference schedule against teams such as Duncanville (Texas), LeFlore (Mobile, Ala.), Jamesville-Dewitt (N.Y.), Westchester (Los Angeles) and Wheeler (Marietta, Ga.).

The Railsplitters, who were ranked No. 8 in the preseason, are 2-7 in those games, including against St. Patrick. They are amid a stretch of five games in six days.

"That's too much," Lincoln coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton said. "The kids love it, but not the coach."

Playing Friday on the ESPN family of networks is the norm for these two programs, both of which made appearances earlier this season. Both teams lost those games, including St. Patrick's narrow loss to top-ranked Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) in the finals of the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla.

The combination of Strickland's high-wire act -- two dunks off alley-oop passes -- and the Celtics' disruptive full-court man press led to a 19-13 edge after one quarter.

Stephenson was badgered throughout the game. Two years ago as a sophomore, he torched the Celtics for 42 points in a 91-74 loss at the Prime Time Shootout. On Friday night, he shot 9-of-23, including 2-of-10 in the opening half. He didn't score until there was 1:26 left in the first quarter, finishing with a game-high 21 points and 10 rebounds.

"He's obviously a great player," Boyle said of Stephenson, the No. 8 player in the ESPN 100. "We were concerned. He could go for 30 or 40 points, but we just didn't want to let the other players hurt us."

James Padgett, a burly 6-8 forward who signed with Maryland, contributed 13 points and 12 rebounds, providing the Railsplitters with an inside presence. The pesky, diminutive backcourt duo of Shaquille Stokes (eight points) and Darwin Ellis (eight points) guarded St. Patrick closely, recording four steals and seven assists, but accounted for only 16 points on combined 4-of-20 shooting (20 percent).

St. Patrick, which never trailed in the game, used a 12-0 third-quarter burst for a 50-34 lead entering the fourth.

Lincoln did not give up, trailing just 60-56 with 24 seconds left after Stephenson's basket, but the Celtics held on.

"We kept fighting," Morton said. "James [Padgett] and Lance [Stephenson] didn't finish down low and had them [St. Patrick] in foul trouble. We fell behind early and fell short."

Kyree Irving a junior guard, scored 16 points, making 6 of 10 shots, mainly in transition. Michael Gilchrist, the nation's top sophomore, added 10 points and 10 rebounds and played sticky man defense on Stephenson in the opening half.

"We kept guarding them hard; we play hard every possession," said Irving, who became eligible last month after transferring from Montclair Kimberley Academy.

Irving, who is considering schools such as Virginia Tech, Ohio State, Gonzaga and Duke, has received several plaudits since transferring, but the highest praise comes from Boyle.

"He's the best player I've coached; he could be the best player in the state [of New Jersey] and certainly one of the best juniors, period."

Lincoln plays Saturday (6 p.m. ET) against No. 12 Westchester (Los Angeles) at the Prime Time Shootout and Sunday in the Brooklyn Borough Tournament.

The Railsplitters ultimately look to win their fourth consecutive PSAL City Championship next month, with the title game at Madison Square Garden. If they do, Stephenson would become the first boys' player in city history to have four basketball titles on his dossier.

Although Stephenson was snubbed for the Jordan Brand Classic Game (April 18 at Madison Square Garden), he will play in the McDonald's game, arguably the top all-star game in the country. Stephenson and Strickland are a pair of New York prep stars who did not receive invites from game organizers to the MSG event.

"That's crazy," Morton said.