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The top-ranked Tar Heels were offensive juggernauts against Old Dominion in Friday's semifinal action with Lawson directing the show with 23 points and five assists. But the sophomore point guard rolled his right ankle less than two minutes into Saturday night's championship final, forcing Bobby Frasor to play 29 minutes at the point.
Lawson's absence stalled the UNC offense, as dribble penetration was virtually nonexistent with Quentin Thomas and Frasor running the point. The Tar Heels only shot 40.7 percent from the floor with Lawson gone, and they committed 10 turnovers to only six assists on the night.
Head coach Roy Williams admitted that Lawson's injury contributed to the 30 percent difference over the past two games.
"Well he does help us get easy baskets," Williams said. "He was also 9-for-11 himself last night. We weren't able to make the tempo go as fast as we wanted it go."
With no easy looks and the 6-foot-11 Trent Plaisted defending Tyler Hansbrough for most of the evening, the junior battled hard for every one of his 21 points on 6-for-11 shooting (9-for-9 on the free throw line). Wayne Ellington added 15 points from the perimeter to loosen things up for Hansbrough down inside, and Danny Green continued his trend of grabbing points in a variety of ways to contribute 14 of his own.
Those numbers proved to be just good enough against the Cougars, who shot 40.3 percent for the game, including 38.9 percent in the second half.
BYU's offensive strategy was pretty straightforward – pound the ball inside to Plaisted, and if that option wasn't available, kick it back outside for a shot beyond the arc. Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson were successful in containing the Cougars' big man in the first half, so Jonathan Tavernari kept his squad within striking distance by connecting on 5-of-8 three-point attempts, including a buzzer beater just before half to cut the Tar Heels lead to 38-31.
North Carolina's man defense forced Hansbrough to guard the smaller Tavernari, but the 6-foot-6 power forward used his deep shooting ability to pull the Preseason All-America outside his comfort zone. Fortunately for the Heels, Tavernari cooled off after the break, knocking down only one of his final eight attempts from behind the arc. The Brazil native finished with 18 points, while Plaisted posted game highs in points (24) and rebounds (17).
BYU used a 13-4 run to take a 44-42 lead only four minutes into the second half, but the Cougars wore down physically over the last 15 minutes. Four players recorded over 34 minutes of action, while eight Tar Heels played double-digit minutes. Despite their opponent's tired legs, UNC still needed a late Ellington three-pointer to extend its lead to 67-61 and effectively put the game away.
"It was one of those games that you have to grind it out," Hansbrough said. "I don't even think we did all of things we wanted to do defensively or quite like we wanted to, but the main thing was we got out with the win."
In a worrisome early season trend, the Tar Heels were outrebounded for the second straight game – both times against smaller teams. Old Dominion claimed a 30-24 edge, while BYU had a 43-39 advantage.
"It's a tremendous concern," Williams said. "If you go back and look probably in our 19 years, we've probably been in the top-10 in the country in rebounding 10 or 11 times. Last year, I think we were third in the nation in rebounding… BYU is a very sound, fundamental rebounding team. They're outrebounding teams by 10. They do a nice job boxing out, so you have to give them some credit, too."
Regardless of the rugby-like style of this basketball game, the Heels were able to pull out a gritty victory with the speedy Lawson on the bench. These types of victories tend to pay dividends down the road.
"[This win] does a lot for us," Green said. "It says that we are able to play without some of our top guys. Ty's definitely one of our top guys on our team… We know that we can play with guys hurt, we've done it before and we're going to continue to keep doing it. You can't just stop playing just because one guy gets hurt."