CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)—Ty Lawson caught the pass as North Carolina pushed the ball in transition, the place where the Tar Heels’ fleet-footed point guard is at his toughest. Yet instead of going without hesitation to the rim, Lawson pulled up and knocked down a jumper.
Yes, the top-ranked Tar Heels’ floor leader is back from his lingering ankle injury just in time for the trip to Duke this weekend. But it’s clear North Carolina will have to wait a little longer for Lawson to feel completely comfortable.
Tyler Hansbrough had 20 points while Lawson, playing in his first home game in a month, added 10 in 20 minutes to help the Tar Heels beat Florida State 90-77 on Tuesday night, keeping them in position to play for the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title this weekend against the sixth-ranked Blue Devils.
Marcus Ginyard had 13 points for North Carolina (28-2, 13-2), which led by 12 at halftime and maintained a comfortable margin through most of the second half for its seventh straight victory. North Carolina, which spent 11 weeks atop the national rankings before losing to Maryland here in January, was playing its first game since regaining the No. 1 spot following Tennessee’s loss at Vanderbilt last week.
Now the Tar Heels can focus on this weekend’s trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium. The question is how much they can get from Lawson as he plays his way back from missing six games with a sprained left ankle.
“A couple of things I can’t do,” Lawson said. “I don’t think I can jump as high as I used to, so I took my time and tried to pull up and little things like that. Holes I feel like I can normally get through, I feel like I can’t, so I just take my time and pass it around sometimes.”
Coach Roy Williams noted that Lawson is “still not comfortable enough to take the ball to the basket in a crowd of people.” Regardless, having the sophomore running the Tar Heels’ fast-paced transition attack again is a welcome sight for a team with national title aspirations.
“I don’t think it’s as much of an adjustment for us,” Hansbrough said. “Maybe for him and getting into shape and things like that, but we’ve played with Ty. It’s just one of those things where it comes right back to you. We’re all used to him.”
Lawson had seven points on 3-for-3 shooting in the second half, helping the Tar Heels shoot 70 percent after the break while pulling away from the Seminoles (17-13, 6-9) over the final 11 minutes. North Carolina led by just six midway through the second half before pushing the margin to as many as 23 in the final minutes.
Jason Rich scored 27 points to lead Florida State, which was trying to win four straight ACC games for the first time since the Sam Cassell-led Seminoles did it 15 years ago. North Carolina has won eight straight meetings and 19 of 22 in the series.
“Carolina scrambled the game with their run and jump, and their trapping of our ball screens,” Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We never regained our composure, and that’s a credit to them.”
That’s not to say it was easy for North Carolina, which had trouble getting open looks for Hansbrough inside—he didn’t score his first second-half basket until the 7:40 mark—while second-leading scorer Wayne Ellington had six points on 2-for-9 shooting.
And Lawson’s health was again a concern—if for only a few minutes—for the second straight meeting. He injured the ankle in the early minutes of the overtime win at Florida State on Feb. 3, and didn’t play again until scoring four points in 21 minutes at Boston College over the weekend.
On Tuesday, playing his first home game since Jan. 31, Lawson offered North Carolina fans a bit of a scare when he grimaced on his way to the bench with a left hip pointer with 1:53 left in the first half.
He left for the locker room sporting an ice bag, and didn’t return to the bench until about 4 minutes into the second half. Still, he seemed more comfortable as the game wore on, particularly in one stretch after the Seminoles had closed within 59-53 with 11:20 left. He knocked down an open jumper from the left side followed by the pull-up jumper in transition on the next play to spark an 8-0 spurt.
Florida State got no closer than 12 points the rest of the way.
“There was no question I was going to try to play through it, no matter what,” Lawson said of the hip pointer. “You get tired of sitting out, so right now I’m playing through anything.”