The fifth-ranked Tar Heels (18-2, 4-2 ACC) forced a shot clock violation on the Seminoles' last possession, setting up the final play of regulation. The first option was for Tyler Hansbrough (eight points, five rebounds) to inbound the pass to a teammate near halfcourt, with the expectation of an immediate timeout.
But when no one was able to find an opening, the senior forward passed it to Lawson near the free throw line, and the Clinton, Md. product did the rest.
"I basically just ran with it, and seeing there was one second on the clock, I just shot a floater over the big man," said Lawson, who led UNC with 21 points and nine rebounds.
The Tar Heels, who led 52-39 with 14:01 left to play, eventually fell behind 68-63 with under seven minutes on the clock. And while Lawson's buzzer-beating heroics will soak up the headlines on Thursday morning, it was several key defensive plays down the stretch that put North Carolina in position to win.
Trailing 77-74, the Tar Heels trapped Toney Douglas on the right wing. Danny Green (20 points, seven rebounds, six steals) knew the Seminole standout's next pass would be back out front and the senior wing capitalized, stepping in front of a pass to Derwin Kitchen and racing the other way for a layup and a free throw after a foul to knot the score at 77.
"Luckily, he held it for a second long enough so I could get there and get to the ball and get a hand on it," Green said. "And then when I got the ball, I picked it up and realized no one was in front of me so I just went in to the basket."
Douglas was a terror against North Carolina on Wednesday, conjuring up images of Wake Forest's Jeff Teague and Boston College's Tyrese Rice of recent weeks. The senior point exploded for 24 of his 32 points in the second half, using a variety of screens to slip through openings in the Tar Heel defense.
UNC head coach Roy Williams initiated a strategic chess move in the final minutes, a decision that ultimately forced Hansbrough to guard the slippery Seminole out front on Florida State's final two possessions. The plan worked, as Douglas was unable to get around his 6-foot-9 adversary, tossing up a desperation shot that led to a shot clock violation with 3.2 seconds remaining.
"We decided right at the very end to switch the screen on the ball, knowing that that would probably be Tyler guarding Toney Douglas, but he does a great job of moving his feet and keeping somebody in front of him," Williams said.
The Tar Heels won despite shooting 38.1 percent (24-of-63) from the floor and committing 21 turnovers, while allowing the Seminoles to connect on 46.7 percent (28-of-60) of their field goal attempts. North Carolina was able to win the rebounding battle, 42 to 34.
"You shoot 38 percent and win a game on the road, you better feel as lucky as you can be and get out of town as fast as you can," Williams said.
Florida State (16-5, 3-3 ACC) entered Wednesday's contest ranked second in the league in field goal percentage defense (.380), and proved why in the first 11 minutes of action. A smothering man-to-man defense pressured the Tar Heels into missing 16 of their first 21 shots (23.8 percent) and committing six turnovers. The result was a 19-11 Seminole lead, but that was when the momentum shifted in UNC's favor.
North Carolina dug itself out of the hole by matching FSU's defensive intensity and did a solid job in limiting the Seminoles' opportunities per possession, utilizing a 29-9 run to end the half with a 46-35 lead. The shocking part of that rally was that UNC outscored Florida State 24-9 with Hansbrough sitting on the bench after picking up his third foul with 6:29 left before halftime.
Wayne Ellington added 14 points for the Tar Heels, while Uche Echefu contributed 14 points and eight rebounds for Florida State.
The Seminoles used a 11-0 spurt midway through the second half to recapture the lead.
"We came through when we needed to," said Hansbrough, whose 55-game streak of scoring in double figures came to end. "There's no debate that we played bad. We didn't do some things that we wanted to, including myself, but we came in here and did what we wanted to, and that was to get a win."
North Carolina returns to action on Saturday against instate rival N.C. State in Raleigh.