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North Carolina Tar Heels' Ty Lawson quiets doubters in win over LSU in second round of NCAA Tournament

UNC’s Ty Lawson, battling an injured right big toe, drives past LSU’s Tasmin Mitchell.

Associated Press

UNC’s Ty Lawson, battling an injured right big toe, drives past LSU’s Tasmin Mitchell.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — For all the games, this is the one they will remember.

For all the points, for all the assists, for all the moments in all of the victories, this is the image North Carolina fans will remember when they hear the name of Ty Lawson.

There is one minute to go, and disaster has been averted, and Lawson is limping toward the Tar Heels bench. His head is slightly bowed, and the sweat is pouring freely, and the approval of the crowd washes over him.

Once again, North Carolina's basketball team is complete.

Once again, the focus is off his toe and onto his Heels.

This is his legacy. This is his moment. Lawson, the star point guard of the Tar Heels, finally returned to play Saturday. Think of it as his Willis Reed moment. Lawson found a way to endure the pain in his right big toe, and because of it, North Carolina found a way to beat LSU and advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

For 17 minutes of the second half, when the game counted the most, Lawson was the best player on the floor. He was everywhere, leading the Heels' charge, calming the offense, sparking the defense. He scored 21 points in that span, hitting six shots as the Tar Heels turned a five-point deficit into a 14-point victory.

After this, perhaps the doubts will disappear when it comes to Lawson's willingness to play with pain. For a week now, there have been those who have argued that Lawson's toe wasn't nearly as painful as he was making it out to be. He has been called soft, or worse.

As for those who doubted him? Don't you wonder how many of those were among the people dressed in sky blue calling out his name?

This is the absurdity of questioning a player's toughness, because unless others can feel his pain, how would anyone possibly know how bad it is? This is the silliness when passion takes some fans to unreasonable assumptions.

"I've never seen Dennis the Menace as tough as I saw him today," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "It was a tough performance by a young man who has had people question his toughness, and that's probably the most satisfying thing."

It was satisfying to Lawson, too, particularly after he struggled for most of the first half.

He had not practiced, and he was rusty, and he was in pain. He had not taken a pain shot (as he had before the regular-season finale against Duke), and from the start, Lawson seemed timid, as if he were unsure of just how much he could trust the toe. He admitted it hurt to slide the foot while on defense, and he didn't want to drive off his toes toward the basket.

Five minutes into the game, Lawson heard a loud pop in his foot. He came out, and trainers worked on the foot. He admitted later he didn't know whether he would go back in or not. But the trainers told him it was scar tissue.

"I was extremely concerned," Williams said. "It was the opposite of kryptonite, I guess. I have no idea what the doctors did at that point."

Whatever they did, they should keep doing it.

By the second half, Lawson had rediscovered his aggressiveness, and suddenly, he was matching the rhythm of the game. He hit a 3. He hit another. He drove to the basket for a three-point play. He was the answer for every basket LSU made.

He was Lawson again, and just like that, the Heels were the Heels again.

"It means a lot to play like that," Lawson said later. He sat on a fluffy couch in a meeting room, his foot in a walking boot and a bottle of codeine tablets in his hand.

"My teammates had been carrying me," the 21-year-old junior said. "But these are the kind of games that I play basketball for."

His foot hurt, if you want to know. It was swelling again. But for the record, Lawson expects to play in the Heels' next game, too, Friday in Memphis. His teammates expect it, too.

"Sometimes he does limp around and act soft," teammate Danny Green said, "but I know how tough he can be. When the game's on the line, big-time players step up and do big-time things."

Sometimes, it's a big shot. Sometimes, it's a big drive to the basket. Sometimes, it's a big pass.

Sometimes, it's swallowing the pain and withstanding the pressure. Sometimes, it's leaving an injury in the locker room and a memory on the floor.

Carolina fans should never forget.

Especially the ones who doubted.

North Carolina Tar Heels' Ty Lawson quiets doubters in win over LSU in second round of NCAA Tournament 03/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 21, 2009 11:33pm]
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