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"They got the first lick in, and it took a while before we stopped staggering," Roy Williams said.
But the Tar Heels, playing with a passion not always evident through the first weeks of the season, seemed to feed off the challenge. Balanced scoring during 14-4 run midway through the first half pushed Carolina in front by double-digits. Then, after Nevada closed to within three with 3:38 remaining before intermission, Carolina responded with eight unanswered points, including back-to-back buckets by Lawson.
When the Tar Heels opened the second half with three straight baskets that stretched the lead to 55-35, Nevada was never able to threaten again.
Lawson's driving and dishing deserves much of the credit for the knockout punch. "When I hit that dunk and layup at the end of the half, I saw them with their heads down," he said. "And when we came back and hit three straight shots, after that, I knew the game was over."
While Carolina looked sharp in nearly every dimension of the game, the night was marred by a season-ending knee injury to Bobby Frasor.
Frasor, playing some of his most aggressive minutes of the season, had just sparked his teammates with a quick steal and three-pointer. After grabbing his second steal of the game, his knee buckled as he turned to lead the fast break, and he fell to the floor in obvious agony before limping off with the support of team trainer Marc Davis. UNC athletic officials announced after the game that Frasor had torn his left ACL. Team doctors will repair the ligament in the next few weeks, and Frasor is expected to be ready for his senior season by next fall.
The injury to a much-loved teammate cast a dark cloud over the post-game locker room. "You sort of lose the thrill when you see a kid like Bobby Frasor [go down]--a little gym rat, who does everything in the world to make himself the best player he can possibly be and thinks about the team first every time," an obviously shaken Williams said postgame. "I told the team it should put things in perspective that every day you don't take things for granted."
Now, without Frasor, backcourt mates Lawson and Ellington will have to shoulder more of the burden. If there is a silver lining to the night, however, it is how well the two played off each other, showcasing the one-two punch that fans have been waiting for all season.
Ellington, who missed Wednesday's practice after problems with his scheduled return flight from a holiday visit to Philadelphia, also missed his first start of the season as a result of the absence. But coming off the bench suited him just fine.
"Me and Coach talked, and he told me to just come in and give us a spark," Ellington said. "He told me to stay focused and not let it bother me. That's what I did. I just came out and played my game."
As for Lawson, Carolina's floor general was nothing short of dominating. He finished the night with 16 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, and five steals -- statistics that included career highs in assists and steals. And the performance was punctuated by far more emotion than Lawson has shown to date.
"I was just trying to get the team involved," Lawson said. "Wayne was knocking down shots. Tyler, Marcus, everybody was knocking down shots. So that made it easy to get a career mark in assists. I was just trying to elevate my intensity. I wanted to get everybody into it."
Lawson knows that intensity will be even more important now that Frasor will watch the remainder of the season from the bench. "It reminds me to work my hardest, and never take days off, because you never know when it can end. It just tells me I can't take any day lightly."