CHAPEL HILL, 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
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
"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."