GREENSBORO — Less than 10 minutes had passed in North Carolina's second-round game against eighth-seeded LSU and coach Roy Williams already was concerned.
There on the end of the bench sat an anguished Ty Lawson while the UNC trainer tended to the star point guard's injured right toe.
For the slightest moment it looked as though the hurting Lawson could be out and the top-seeded Tar Heels would have to try to advance to the Sweet 16 without the ACC Player of the Year.
But Lawson soon re-entered the game" and in the second half he played some of his most brilliant basketball of the season to lead UNC to an 84-70 win Saturday at Greensboro Coliseum.
""It was a gutty performance by our club" Williams said during his postgame press conference.
I kidded the little fella called him Dennis the Menace" and that's exactly who he is. But I've never seen Dennis the Menace as tough as I saw him today.""
The 23-point" six-assist performance by Lawson came as a surprise to himself and many observers given the circumstances surrounding the junior's injury before the game.
Lawson had missed the past three games because of his injured toe and it wasn't known until just before tipoff if he would play" even though he claimed after the game that he knew he'd play since Thursday.
""Probably right after the Radford game"" he said. Right after that game I knew I was going to play because it was feeling a lot better.""
And given how the Tigers (27-8) played Saturday" UNC needed Lawson to play to advance.
From the opening tip" the length and athleticism of LSU's Tasmin Mitchell and Marcus Thornton proved mismatches for the Tar Heels.
Mitchell took advantage of his quickness in the low post when matched up against UNC's Deon Thompson to score 10 first-half points.
And Thornton knocked down shot after shot to keep the upstart Tigers within striking distance and led all scorers with 25 points.
""They got the ball to Tasmin Mitchell" and he was just outstanding for them" said Wayne Ellington, who scored 23 points.
He made some tough shots. We didn't really step up defensively. We knew they were going to come out and fight.""
That formula worked to erase UNC's nine-point halftime lead just three minutes into the second period. It was clear that Lawson would have to be more than a facilitator for UNC to avoid an upset.
So despite the fact that he felt about ""75 to 80 percent" Lawson began to assert himself on the offensive end.
He hit his second consecutive 3-pointer of the half to knot the score at 44 and then scored on a breakaway layup as the Tar Heels fought to keep pace with LSU.
Lawson said those baskets gave him the adrenaline rush he needed to forget about the pain in his foot and focus on the game.
After I made those two 3s I knew I was going to keep attacking and try to score more and get in there and dish out to other people" Lawson said in the postgame media room while gripping a bottle of pain medicine.
The buckets also seemed to ignite the rest of the Tar Heels.
Ellington hit a couple of 3s and forced key steals. Senior Danny Green even hit a huge deep ball seconds after missing from long range to increase UNC's lead from 67-63 to 70-63.
Green's shot, along a couple of Lawson's patented explosive drives to the lane, sparked a 17-2 run that turned a 63-63 tie into the comfortable lead UNC rode to victory.
And as the final seconds ticked off the clock, it was fitting that Lawson led his team over to LSU's bench to shake hands.
Through all the pain, he managed to score 21 second-half points and be the key instrument in another win, putting to rest any doubts on his ability to play through injury.
That was about as tough a performance by a young man who has had people question his toughness"" Williams said. I think that's probably the most satisfying thing.""
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