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Heeling Power

April 02, 2009|David Teel

Sporting stylish eyewear and lounging on a doctor's exam table, North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson embodied fashion and relaxation the day before the Tar Heels' second-round NCAA tournament game.

As Lawson held court with reporters, his teammates couldn't hide their amusement. Lawson's vision? Crystal clear. His injured big toe? Likely healed.

The glasses and table? Completely unnecessary.

In three subsequent games, Lawson has proved just how necessary he is to North Carolina's championship hopes.

He dissected Louisiana State in the second round and followed up by earning most outstanding player honors at the South Regional, where the Tar Heels dispatched Gonzaga and Oklahoma to advance to their 18th Final Four.

"Ty Lawson is a great college point guard," said Oklahoma Coach Jeff Capel, who played the position at Duke. ". . . that North Carolina team maybe does not get past LSU if he doesn't play, especially how good he was in the second half."

A 5-foot-11 junior, Lawson explored entering the NBA draft last year. But after North Carolina's Final Four loss to Kansas, he elected to again chase a national title -- and in the process became the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year.

Always a blur with the ball, Lawson passed for more assists, committed fewer turnovers and improved his three-point shooting to nearly 50%. He's averaging 16.3 points and 6.5 assists entering Saturday's semifinal against Villanova.

Lawson's 3.5-1 assist-turnover ratio is the best in ACC history. His 49.5% three-point accuracy would lead the conference if only he heeded Coach Roy Williams' advice and shot enough to qualify.

"He's matured a great deal," Williams said. "He's better defensively. He's made better decisions. I spent his whole sophomore year trying to especially encourage him to look for the outside shot . . . because he can really shoot the ball."

Maturation was arguably the most important upgrade. Lawson used to approach basketball more as diversion than passion, particularly in practice -- indifference that did not fly with coaches and teammates steeped in the ethos of Dean Smith and Michael Jordan.

"There's been some times when Ty . . . didn't always play as hard as he is right now," All-American forward Tyler Hansbrough said. "I think he's playing a lot harder than he ever has. . . . He feels like, when he has the ball, he can lead the team and do pretty much whatever he wants to do at times."

Told of Hansbrough's comments, Lawson does not blink or hesitate. He enjoys attention and embellishes ailments but doesn't deny the truth.

"When I was in high school, basketball was just something fun to do," Lawson said. "Now I really love to play. I think I take things a lot more seriously than when I was a freshman."

Serious doesn't begin to describe the obsession with Lawson's big right toe. He jammed it late in the season and requested a pain-killing injection before North Carolina's home finale against Duke.

The Tar Heels won to secure top seeding in the ACC tournament as Lawson contributed 13 points, nine assists and a game-high eight rebounds. But Lawson missed the next three games, including a semifinal loss to Florida State in the conference tournament, commencing a torrent of media updates and Internet musings about his toe.

Lawson returned against LSU and scored 21 of his 23 points after halftime. He added six assists without a turnover in an 84-70 victory.

One play proved Lawson was back, a crossover dribble that buckled Tigers guard Bo Spencer and led to a layup.

"He's real quick and explosive," said Garrett Temple, LSU's best perimeter defender. "He's shooting a great percentage from the three-point line this year . . . so we tried to get up in him, [but] he was able to penetrate."

Lawson was even better against Gonzaga and Oklahoma, producing 38 points on 13-for-22 shooting, 14 assists and four steals with only two turnovers.

But friend and foe applauded him for more than numbers.

Seems that the cut-up whom Williams calls "Dennis the Menace," the player who endured the most criticism when guards Tyrese Rice of Boston College and Jeff Teague of Wake Forest engineered January upsets of North Carolina, has become a calming influence.

"He's always been our quarterback out on the court, but I feel like he's doing a great job of leading by example and just showing a lot of toughness," guard Wayne Ellington said.

Said Gonzaga Coach Mark Few: "They've got about 77 entities that keep you up at night, but [he's] probably either 1 or 1A."

Given such progress, few expect Lawson back for his senior season.

"I worked on a lot of things people said I couldn't do," he said. "A lot of people said I wasn't a leader. I feel like I'm leading this team. I still hear people say I can't shoot. I'm shooting almost 50% on threes. I don't know how well I have to shoot to get people to say I can."

Lawson hears no such complaints from his coach. Only compliments veiled in playful barbs.

"He's still Dennis the Menace most times," Williams said, "but he's also Rambo every now and then."


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