Speedy Lawson drives UNC offense

UNC's Ty Lawson picks up a loose ball under Washington State's Robbie Cowgill in the second half on Thursday. The lightning-quick Lawson sparks the Tar Heels' transition attack.
UNC's Ty Lawson picks up a loose ball under Washington State's Robbie Cowgill in the second half on Thursday. The lightning-quick Lawson sparks the Tar Heels' transition attack.

CHARLOTTE -- There were 11 minutes or so remaining, North Carolina was up 21 points on Washington State, and the Cougars, who had been a second-half team much of the year, weren't going to come back in Thursday's East Regional semifinal.

But just to make sure, the Tar Heels' Ty Lawson made quick work of the Cougars.

And we do mean quick.

On three straight possessions, Lawson went baseline to baseline quicker than a lizard on hot asphalt.

WSU's Aron Baynes scored inside to cut the lead to 49-30. The clock showed 11:05. As it clicked to 10:59, Lawson was flipping the ball off the glass for a bucket.

Derrick Low scored to cut the margin to 51-32 and after a foul on Kyle Weaver with 10:31 to go, Lawson was scoring in the lane. The clock said 10:25.

And after Weaver missed a 3-pointer, the clock ticking to 10:09, Lawson was jetting down the middle like a Camaro at the local drag strip and scoring again. Clock time 10:02.

Six points in 57 seconds.

"I thought we were pretty good at transition defense," Low said, "but tonight, that was lacking a little bit. For the most part, we got back most of the time, but when you're going up against a quick guard like Lawson, you've got to get everyone back and build a wall to stop him."

Against Lawson, you can't lay the bricks fast enough.

As Washington State coach Tony Bennett and Low waited in the holding area for the post-game press conference, Bennett said he asked Low, "How fast is he?"

He didn't relay Low's answer. Didn't have to.

He's fast. Real fast.

Bennett said his team "worked so hard preparing for this" but admitted he didn't have a guard on the roster who could "mimic" Lawson in practice.

"That was impressive," Bennett said. "It certainly was."

It's something that's been building the last few weeks, since Lawson made the month-long recovery from an ankle sprain suffered against Florida State on Feb. 3. He missed six straight games, including the Tar Heels' last loss at home, to Duke on Feb. 6.

His return has been gradual, but at the ACC tournament two weeks ago, the signs of recovery were there. He got a little better with each game.

Since the NCAA tournament began last week, it's evident Lawson's at or near 100 percent.

"I think so," Lawson said, when asked if he was healthy after the Washington State win. "I was able to do everything I normally do. Going to the basket, pulling up. My ankle felt comfortable and I was able to jump off it and make right-handed layups. I feel like I'm back."

In three NCAA games, he's shooting 62 percent, 50 percent on 3-pointers, averaging 17.3 points and 3.6 assists.

He couldn't have returned at a better time.

While Tyler Hansbrough is the big dog in North Carolina's kennel of players with pedigrees, Lawson is the greyhound that runs the show, and right now he's running it better than any guard left in the NCAA tournament.

"He's showed why he's thought of as a big-league guard," Bennett said.

While none of the Tar Heels or coach Roy Williams wanted Lawson on the sidelines, it's helped build depth. Quentin Thomas, after Bobby Frasor was lost for the year and Lawson was injured, was forced into the starting role. For the first time in his career, he embraced it. Being out became a different kind of assist for Lawson.

The Tar Heels survived without him. Now, they're thriving with him.

If North Carolina wins the national championship, Lawson may turn out to be the key, not Hansbrough. With Lawson pushing the ball, he can get his own shot. If the defense cuts him off, someone else is open for a jumper or a layup. And trapping him is like trying to corner a rabbit in a cow pasture.

"They just keep coming at you," Bennett said.

There's nothing worse for the other team than scoring, relaxing for a split second and seeing a 5-foot-11, 195-pound guard who's built like a tailback flash by you for a bucket almost before you've taken a breath.

"It's demoralizing," the Heels' Marcus Ginyard said. Smiling, of course.

Running off an opponent's miss or make makes no difference to Lawson. He's got another gear, a Masserati among Mazdas.

Williams, who loves golf, compares Lawson to an easy birdie.

"You like tap-in birdies as opposed to putting from 20 feet every time," Williams said.

And the quicker the better.