DETROIT -- There hadn't been so much fuss over a big toe since Stripes was in theaters in 1981. North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson's biggest piggie kept him out of the ACC Tournament and threatened to keep him out for a portion of the NCAA tournament.
Some wondered how a jammed big toe could sideline someone during such a critical stretch. North Carolina coach Roy Williams did not. His decision to hold Lawson out of the ACC tourney and the Tar Heels' first-round win against Radford may have been the most important any coach made during the tourney season. That call ensured North Carolina's most important player would be healthy enough to last five more games. With Lawson at the helm, Carolina buzzsawed through the field and capped their season by hammering Michigan State in the national title game on Monday.
Lawson injured the toe during practice on March 6. Despite the pain, he played in Carolina's Senior Day win against Duke. Then the real problems began. The toe swelled the next day, and it didn't go down for several days. Williams began to worry as the days passed, but he did not want Lawson to take another painkilling shot. With Lawson, the Tar Heels were a national title contender. Without him, they were the type of team that could lose to Florida State in the ACC Tourney semis.
"With Ty we average 91 a game," Williams said the day before the Tar Heels faced Radford. "And down there [at the ACC tourney] we averaged 74. We didn't get as many easy baskets on the break with his ability to push the ball. We didn't get as many easy ones with his ability to penetrate and draw people to him and pitch."
Looking at the bracket, Williams knew Carolina would need Lawson, especially against a long, athletic team such as second-round opponent LSU. Offensively, Lawson made guards Wayne Ellington and Danny Green better shooters by drawing their defenders away because no single player could handle his speed. He also improved Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson's play in the post by sucking the defense toward him and dishing for easy baskets. When Lawson kept the ball, he often drew a foul. In five tournament games, he attempted 41 free throws.
The Tar Heels got a brief scare when Lawson felt a sharp pain in the toe against LSU, but he wound up playing 31 minutes in an 84-70 win. Afterward, Williams was asked if Carolina could have won without Lawson. "We'll never know," he said with a laugh. "That's the only answer I can give you. I didn't feel good when I thought that he might not be coming back in the game."
With a break between the second and third rounds, Lawson had time to heal. The toe became less of an issue, and the Tar Heels rolled to wins against Gonzaga and Oklahoma to reach the Final Four. In Detroit, Lawson had a rough night at the line against Villanova, but he more than made up for that against the Spartans on Monday. Lawson scored 21 and finished with a title-game record eight steals. "Our defense as a whole, which people have really picked on, including me for a lot of the year, down the stretch this year, we've been pretty doggone good," Williams said. "Ty was a huge part of that tonight. When he's really active, it's the frontline of our defense, and he's fantastic."
Without Lawson, the Tar Heels were good. With him, they became national champions. To use Bill Murray's logic from Stipes, Lawson was North Carolina's big toe.