UNC's Reacquaintance With Ty Lawson

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- No. 1 North Carolina adjusted quickly to Ty Lawson's absence, but now the question ironically becomes this: Can the Tar Heels adjust to his return?

There was legitimate concern that North Carolina's season was heading down the proverbial tubes when Lawson was pulled down by Florida State's Ryan Reid in the opening minutes in Tallahassee on Feb. 3. The speedy point guard's left ankle rolled in the wrong direction, and so it seemed were the Tar Heels' hopes for the coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA East Region.

North Carolina escaped the state of Florida with an overtime victory that Sunday, and then looked scattered at best in a double-digit home loss to rival Duke that following Wednesday.

But the Tar Heels, besieged with a flood of injuries, grinded out several victories in the Blue Devil aftermath before things clicked with Quentin Thomas running Roy Williams' up-tempo offense. During Lawson's absence, Tyler Hansbrough increased his overall output to 28.0 points and 12.1 rebounds per outing, Thomas managed a 2:1 assist-turnover ratio in his seven games at the point, Danny Green broke out of his midseason slump and Wayne Ellington took a more prominent role in the Tar Heel offense as the second option beside the heralded big man.

"The team has adjusted by elevating their play...," Williams said about his team's 7-1 run without Lawson. "The kids take some ownership when I say, 'We're not going to have Ty, so you've got to play better and you've got to play better.' So I think they've accepted that and tried to elevate their game. Somebody's got to pick it up and that's been the most impressive thing, with guys trying to be willing to try to do more and do more within the framework that we want."

After posting convincing double-digit victories in the three games prior to Lawson's return last Saturday in Boston, the Tar Heels have struggled in the opening halves of the past two games – a 90-80 win at Boston College, and Tuesday's 90-77 victory over Florida State.

North Carolina shot 39.3 percent in the first half in falling behind the Eagles by 14, and managed just a 40 percent field goal percentage in the opening 20 minutes on Tuesday night. Lawson admits that his return to the lineup hasn't been as smooth as he would have liked.

"My timing is a little bit off," said Lawson, who played 21 and 20 minutes in the two contests, respectively. "And playing with my teammates, their game didn't change, but normally I know exactly where Wayne [Ellington] is coming down the court… But now, it's a little bit off trying to get right back into it, like when to drive and things like that."

Despite the recent slow starts, however, the Tar Heels have closed strong. Lawson helped his squad overcome an 18-point second-half deficit in Boston with a 61.3 shooting percentage in the final 20 minutes, and topped that staggering statistic with a 70.4 field goal percentage in the second half against Florida State.

An even more glaring stat may be that when Lawson joined Ellington in the backcourt on Tuesday, the Tar Heels outscored the Seminoles 27-12. With Thomas replacing Lawson, North Carolina was outscored 34-26.

Numbers like that allow you to understand why the leading candidate for national player of the year honors is not concerned about getting reacquainted with his starting point guard.

"I don't think it's much adjustment for us," Hansbrough said. "Maybe for him getting in shape and things like that, but we've played with Ty, and it's just one of those things where it comes right back to you."

Lawson is still clearly not 100 percent, evidenced by his hesitancy to drive to the basket against Florida State, instead settling for jump shots. There is also some concern on the defensive end of the court with his lateral motion and ability to stop dribble penetration.

"I feel like I'm a step slow sometimes," Lawson said. "If he's driving towards my left foot, I'm a step slow. I'm afraid to put a lot of pressure on it like that. But against Boston College, I felt like I had to, and it loosened up a little bit and I was able to play defense like I normally [do]."

But even with a left hip pointer delaying his plans for a seamless transition back into the starting lineup for Saturday's pivotal game at Duke, Lawson is determined to provide the spark that was missing in the Tar Heels' loss to the arch rivals last month.

"It's at their place and it's their Senior Night, and I want to ruin that," Lawson said.

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