GREENSBORO, N.C. – No one has ever doubted Ty Lawson’s talent, speed or ability to take over a game for North Carolina. Maybe now Lawson won’t hear so many questions about whether he’s tough enough, too.
Lawson scored 21 of his 23 points after halftime in his return from a toe injury, and his three-point play sparked the decisive second-half run as North Carolina held off LSU 84-70 in the South Regional on Saturday.
Wayne Ellington scored 23 points to lead the Tar Heels (30-4), who ran off 11 straight points in a tie game to take control and move on to next week’s regional semifinals in Memphis, Tenn., where they will face Gonzaga.
North Carolina came into the season as everybody’s pick to win the national championship. That goal would likely be over by now if not for the player coach Roy Williams has dubbed “Dennis the Menace” for his playful antics in practice.
Lawson had missed the past three games after he jammed his right toe in practice two days before the regular-season finale against Duke. Coach Roy Williams had said he had to get through practice Friday, experience no swelling later that night and get through pregame warmups to play.
Fans greeted him with a loud roar that drowned out his name during starting lineups, but the speedy junior didn’t look like he was at 100 percent early on. He seemed hesitant when pushing the ball up the floor, and at one point in the first half came out of the game, took off his shoe and was in obvious discomfort while a trainer looked at him on the bench.
But the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year got better as the game wore on, helping the Tar Heels rally from a five-point deficit midway through the second half to the eighth-seeded Tigers (27-8).
Lawson finished 7 for 13 from the floor to go with six assists.
Marcus Thornton scored 25 points to lead the Tigers, who gave the Tar Heels everything they could handle even while playing in front of a hostile crowd that was at least two-thirds full of light blue.
But in the end, North Carolina – a veteran team trying to return to the Final Four – had just enough to hang on.