The Ty Lawson that took the floor when the game tipped at 5:45pm was average at best, thanks to the infamous big right toe that's drawn national media attention since it abruptly met a UNC goal support in practice 15 days ago. What emerged from the locker room after halftime, however, bore a striking resemblance to Superman.
After just two points on 1-of-5 shooting prior to halftime, Lawson (six assists, zero turnovers) was the only Tar Heel to score in the opening five minutes of the second half, draining two 3-pointers that helped keep top-seeded UNC afloat during LSU's 18-6 run to start the final stanza. The junior point fought through the pain and the double teams in the lane to post an improbable 21-point second-half performance on a bad toe.
"I've kidded the little fellow, I've called him Dennis the Menace, and that's exactly who he is," UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. "But I've never seen Dennis the Menace as tough as I saw him today."
There's no irony in the fact that Lawson's ability to overcome his injury coincided with North Carolina's ability to run away from the Tigers en route to a NCAA record 23rd Sweet Sixteen appearance.
Tyler Hansbrough (15 points, eight rebounds) broke the 63-63 tie with a free throw, and Lawson (23 points, 7-of-13, 7-of-7 at the foul line) responded on the defensive end of the floor by stealing the ball from Tasmin Mitchell and converting a plus-one lay-up for the four-point lead.
"When I got the steal and went between two players and got the and-one, that was a big play to help me mentally get over the pain and just try to go regular speed," Lawson said.
Moments later, he signaled his full return by working around LSU's shot-blocking presence Chris Johnson for another lay-up to extend the lead to 72-63. Lawson back-pedaled down the court, pounding his chest while yelling, "Let's go, baby!"
"It was do or die time," said Lawson, who scored over 20 points for the seventh time in his last 12 games. "These are the games I play basketball for. I want to be in a tough game, going back and forth."
While members of the national media questioned Lawson's toughness and ability to play through the pain of his toe this week, there was little concern in the UNC locker room if the starting point guard would rise to the occasion when his teammates needed him most.
"I know how tough he can be," Green said. "Sometimes he does limp around and act soft, 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. I knew he was going to step up and do some things for us."
Lawson appeared rusty early, missing a floater in the lane and an up-and-under lay-up in the opening minutes. Things went from bad to worse just 11 minutes into the game, when the junior point guard felt something pop in his right big toe while defending a Bo Spencer drive down the left side of the lane.
Lawson quickly signaled to come out of the game, and then promptly removed his right shoe with trainer Chris Hirth by his side. UNC led 17-12 when Lawson exited the contest, and when the Clinton, Md. native returned to the floor, the Tar Heels had just regained the lead on two Wayne Ellington free throws at 21-20.
North Carolina used a strong defensive effort – holding LSU to 40 percent shooting and forcing eight turnovers – to jumpstart its offense and close the opening 20 minutes with a 17-7 run to open up a 38-29 halftime margin.
But the Tar Heels failed to carry that defensive effort over to the early stages of the second half as LSU connected on seven of its first eight field goal attempts to take the lead. That margin eventually grew to five points at 54-49, before North Carolina closed the gap behind the strong play of Lawson, Ellington (23 points – third-straight game over 20) and Ed Davis (nine points, seven rebounds, two blocks).
SEC Player of the Year Marcus Thornton led LSU with 25 points and six rebounds, while Mitchell contributed 18 points and six rebounds.
The Tar Heels shot 54.2 percent (32-of-59) for the game, while holding LSU to 45.3 percent (29-of-64). The Tigers did manage to win the rebounding battle, 33-32.
Next up for top-seeded North Carolina is No. 4 seed Gonzaga in Memphis on Friday. The Bulldogs defeated No. 12 seed Western Kentucky, 83-81, on a last-second shot.