Sunday March 22nd, 2009

Scooping a loose ball in the defensive half of the court, Ty Lawson took off in the other direction, accelerating without hesitation and gaining a step of separation past a pair of LSU defenders. As he reached the goal, he fearlessly leapt in traffic and, thanks to a half-dozen kind bounces on the rim, scored the hoop and drew a foul.

It was signature Lawson: North Carolina's point guard was back.

After playing tentatively on his injured right big toe and scoring just two points on 1-of-5 shooting in the first half, Lawson exploded in the second half, adding 21 points then on 7-of-8 attempts. He finished with six assists and no turnovers, as North Carolina, the East Region's No. 1 seed, withstood a second-half surge from No. 8 LSU en route to the 84-70 win.

"Once the adrenaline got going and the crowd got behind us, I felt like [the toe] was getting better," said Lawson, who said he played at about 75 to 80 percent. "Plus, in the first half I didn't try to do too much on it."

Before the game, the joke was that his status was "toe be determined." On Friday, when having the precious digit wrapped publicly during an open locker session, scores of reporters stood and watched as the team trainer cozied it in gauze. There was enough uncertainty surrounding his participation tonight that the starting lineups announced shortly before tipoff still listed "Frasor or Lawson" at point guard, in case Bobby Frasor was needed at the last minute. Only moments before player introductions did we learn that Lawson would, in fact, play after his No. 5 was posted on the video scoreboard along with the rest of the starters.

"I kidded the little fella, called him Dennis the Menace," said UNC coach Roy Williams, "and that's exactly who he was. But I've never seen Dennis the Menace as tough as I saw him today."

With about seven minutes left in the first half, Lawson sat on the bench, grimacing, with his shoe off and his toe being tended to by the trainer.

"I was just trying to get back in there," Lawson said. "I was thinking, What can I do to be able to go in? Then coach asked, 'Are you ready?' So I just ran in the game."

But in the second half Lawson was the story, though he had great support from junior guard Wayne Ellington, who shot 9-of-16 from the field, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, for 23 points. Ellington accounted for a personal eight-point burst in a two-minute stretch midway through the half, saying later that he was so hot it felt like he was shooting "rocks in the ocean."

Ellington certainly benefited from the increased threat Lawson posed and noted that it was natural for his teammate to need some time to catch up to NCAA tournament play.

"He hadn't played in a little while," Ellington said of Lawson, "so it took him time to get loose and back in the rhythm of things."

Resting comfortably on the green room couch after the game, Lawson told reporters that he's been assured he won't do further damage to the toe by playing and that it's simply a matter of learning to play with the pain.

Not since Packers wideout Sterling Sharpe's recurrent turf-toe injury of 1993 has one toe been so closely monitored, examined and discussed. Though it may continue to bother Lawson, he's proven he can play with the discomfort and should be aided by at least five days of rest. No longer will Williams need to start every press conference with an update. That chapter has passed, and not a moment too soon, either. One radio reporter asked at least two teammates if they thought Lawson was feeling any pain in the second half. "I don't have his toe," Tyler Hansbrough dryly replied.

And it looks like UNC can continue its run, not limp, to Detroit.

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