GREENSBORO — North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson's jammed big toe hurt every time he dribbled right, slid on defense or pivoted on his gimpy piggy Saturday night.
But he also knew the alternative would have been much more painful.
With his top-seeded team's NCAA Tournament life on the line at Greensboro Coliseum, the junior returned from a three-game absence to score a gutsy 23 points -- all but two in the second half -- to lead his team past eighth-seeded LSU 84-70.
The Tar Heels (30-4) advanced to play Gonzaga on Friday in Memphis in the round of 16. It will mark UNC's 23rd trip to the NCAA regional semifinals.
"It was the first time coach has ever called me a 'tough player,' or anything like that," said Lawson, who first started having his threshold for pain questioned last season, when he missed seven games for two different ankle injuries.
"I wanted to show everybody that I am a tough player, that I can play through an injury -- and that satisfied me, knowing I could show everybody that."
He looked less than 100 percent early, missing his first three shots. But the ACC Player of the Year showed his intestinal fortitude when, with his team leading 17-12 with about 11:30 left in the first half, he pushed off his taped right toe on defense and heard it pop -- sending him to the bench and his team into a short tailspin.
While the trainer was treating him -- "he said I probably just popped some of the scar tissue, which I was trying to get rid of anyways, so hopefully it was a good thing," Lawson said -- LSU reeled off an 8-2 run to take a 20-19 lead.
With Lawson back in the game, and Wayne Ellington scoring 11 of his 23 points before the break, Tar Heels led 38-29 at halftime.
But the aggressive Tigers began the second period with a 13-3 surge that included six points from Tasmin Mitchell, two blocks on Tyler Hansbrough (who didn't score a second-half field goal until 4:48 remained) and a timeout by UNC coach Roy Williams, who asked one simple question: "Do you want your season to end right now?"
Lawson, looking like his old speedy self by the minute, immediately answered with his second 3-pointer of the half tie the score 44-44 with 15:54 left.
Then, again, seven minutes later.
A 3-pointer by Tigers wing Marcus Thornton tied it 63-63 with 8:35 remaining. But UNC countered with a 17-2 run -- including an athletic three-point play, a jumper and two free throws by Lawson; and Danny Green's only 3-pointer of the game -- to pull away for good.
"That and one [Ty] had, I didn't think he was going to be strong enough or tough enough to bull his way up, but that was an incredible play," senior guard Bobby Frasor said. "... Ty is a special player, and I'm glad he's back."
Now the question is, is he back for good? Lawson iced his toe -- which he injured when he collided with a basket support in practice on March 6 -- immediately after the game. But as dozens of reporters crowded around him during the postgame media session, he said that he could feel it swelling.
Still, he said he didn't expect it to react as badly as it did when he played on the hurt toe during the March 8 game at Duke, because he planned to treat it differently.
"That was probably our fault," Lawson said. "My dad, he was like, 'Put it in hot water Epsom salt.' It's an old remedy, old school, so I was like, 'All right, I'll try it.' But then it swelled up real big, and I told the doctors, and they just looked at me like I was crazy. I won't do that again -- I'll just ice it from now on."
Thornton led LSU with 25 points; Tasmin Mitchell added 18.
"We just let one slip away,'' Thornton said.
Mostly because they let Lawson -- who also handed out six assists with no turnovers -- slip by, despite his achy toe.
"Sometimes he does limp around and act soft, but I know how tough he can be," Green said. "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."
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