RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—Ty Lawson sat down in the North Carolina locker room and began untying the black brace wrapped snugly around his left ankle. After he removed it, he propped his foot on a chair and a trainer wrapped an icebag around it.
More than a month has passed since Lawson suffered one of the most publicized ankle sprains in the program’s storied history, and the injury robbed the Tar Heels of the fleet-footed point guard who powers their fast-paced transition offense. Now, he’s back in the lineup and looking more comfortable with each passing game, though his health—down to his every cut on the court— remains an oft-scrutinized element of North Carolina’s latest push for the Final Four.
For the record, Lawson said his achy ankle feels OK heading into Sunday’s NCAA tournament second-round game against an Arkansas team that also likes to run. Still, from watching his post-practice icing ritual, it’s not completely out of mind, either.
“When I first got back … I wouldn’t go in the lane for nothing,” Lawson said Saturday. “If I had a fast break, I would pull up instead of going in and trying to challenge somebody. But now I feel a lot more comfortable going inside amongst the trees and laying it up and getting contact.”
Lawson sprained his left ankle in a collision with Florida State’s Ryan Reid in the early minutes of an overtime road win on Feb. 3, an injury that sidelined him for the rest of that game and the six that followed. During that period, coach Roy Williams was peppered with questions about Lawson’s health and when he might return in what became an almost weekly soap opera.
Now Lawson is back and slowly rebuilding his confidence, particularly when driving in traffic. Still, the topic hangs over the top-seeded Tar Heels (33-2) as they seek a second national title in four seasons.
Take Lawson’s spinning layup off a steal in Friday’s first-round rout of Mount St. Mary’s, for example. Lawson sounded pleased that he was able to make the move to get by a defender with no pain. But Williams noticed something else when asked whether Lawson’s injury was finally a non-issue.
“I guess you can declare anything you want to, but I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “To me, still there’s a huge difference there of having to make a move and just blowing past somebody, which I’ve seen him do in the past.”
The ninth-seeded Razorbacks (23-11) even had to field questions about Lawson’s health, though they were reluctant to say much of anything about it. When asked about Lawson’s ankle, coach John Pelphrey gave a general answer about the Tar Heels’ overall talent with Lawson, All-American Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington.
“I don’t know,” Arkansas point guard Gary Ervin said about whether Lawson would be limited. “That’s not something I’m worried about going into this game. I don’t feel like it’s a Ty Lawson-Gary Ervin matchup. It’s a team game.”
Arkansas’ attack, which helped the Razorbacks beat Indiana 86-72 in the first round of the East Regional, figures to push Lawson more than other opponents because the sophomore will have to focus as much on getting back on defense as he does taking the ball upcourt after a score.
His teammates, however, have seen him go from pulling up for a transition jumper in his second game back to attacking Clemson’s fullcourt pressure with his trademark zeal in last weekend’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game. In Friday’s 113-74 win against the Mountaineers, Lawson finished with 21 points on 7-for-9 shooting with a pair of 3-pointers.
“I guess you could look at this as a test to see if he really is (back),” sophomore Deon Thompson said. “I feel in my mind that he is back to full strength. The question is: Are they going to be ready to run with his speed?”
Lawson understands his responsibility. With Hansbrough inside and Ellington picking up his game on the perimeter, Lawson has been the team’s No. 3 scoring option at 12.7 points per game. It’s why he admitted being hurt by some fans who questioned his toughness when he was sidelined during the heart of the ACC regular-season schedule.
“Some people said I was going to sit out a long time because of draft status or something like that,” he said. “Anybody who thought that was a fool because I love playing basketball and I want to win. I want to win an NCAA tournament championship. That’s my goal right now, and I plan to stay here until I do it.”