“I got in a groove early, knocked down some open shots and got my team involved,” Lawson said. “And we got the win, which is what I was looking for the most.”
Johnson took it right at the Clinton, Md. native early and often, scoring 12 points in the first 11:55 to give his Old Dominion squad a 28-22 lead, but Lawson matched the senior point guard stride-for-stride, adding nine quick points of his own to keep the Tar Heels close.
When the speedy point guard wasn’t scoring in transition or knocking down a couple of threes en route to a 9-for-11 shooting night against the Monarch’s zone defense, he was running the offense efficiently, forcing the ball inside to Tyler Hansbrough (27 points, six rebounds) or finding Wayne Ellington (17 points) on the perimeter.
“Ty Lawson pushing the tempo of the game I think was extremely important to us,” Williams said. “Last year, if you look at the stats, he got off to a little bit of a slow start, but as the season went along, he got better and better. And I do believe in the open court he’s hard to handle… We need Ty to play that way for us to be effective.”
Lawson had only scored a total of 30 points in the first three contests of the season, and it should come as no surprise that when his game finally clicked Friday night in Las Vegas, the UNC offense flourished. The Tar Heels shot a staggering 70.9 percent from the floor, including knocking down 7-of-11 from behind the three-point line. UNC’s worst shooting performance was from the free throw line, where they only connected on 63.6 percent (14-of-22) of their attempts.
But North Carolina needed every bit of that offensive assault, especially early in a contest that ended shortly after 2 a.m. Eastern standard time. Johnson’s 16 points led five Old Dominion scorers in double figures as the Monarchs shot 55.4 percent (31-of-56) from the floor.
“We kept talking about trying to guard better and play better defense, but we never really did get it established defensively, so we just have to congratulate Old Dominion for doing a nice job of making shots and beating us to death on the backboards,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels were outrebounded 30-24, including a 15-9 deficit on the offensive glass. The Monarchs grabbed 11 offensive boards in the first half, allowing them to keep the game tight through the first 20 minutes. North Carolina led 43-39 at halftime.
The players may not know exactly what the problem is on the boards, but they realize that it needs to be corrected quickly – preferably before Saturday night’s Las Vegas Invitational championship game against Brigham Young, who upset No. 6 Louisville earlier on Friday.
“I think it’s sometimes lack of effort or their guys just being in better position,” Hansbrough said. “I think that was an emphasis that Coach [Williams] came into the locker room and talked about, and I think we definitely did better in the second half.”
Johnson picked up his fourth foul only 2:10 into the second half, and the Tar Heels quickly pushed their lead out to 60-48 and maintained a double-digit margin for the majority of the rest of the ball game.
North Carolina and BYU are scheduled to tip-off at Orleans Arena Saturday at 10:30 p.m. EST on ESPN2.