UNC shows off depth and experience in beating OSU without Lawson
COLUMBUS, Ohio. -- Carolina nation can exhale. Ty Lawson will play Saturday at Kentucky.
"I'm definitely playing Saturday," Lawson said late Wednesday night after the Tar Heels' 66-55 win over Ohio State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Lawson rolled his right ankle after playing only two minutes in a win over BYU last Saturday.
Lawson said he could have played against the Buckeyes, but moving laterally on defense was still an issue during the day. So, he said, with some more time off and a bit more ice, he'll be good to go.
So, it seems that's the end of North Carolina's experiment of playing without their jet-quick point guard. And, while it wasn't done on purpose, the No. 2-ranked Tar Heels are certainly better off for going through the exercise.
This team, this title contender and overwhelming ACC favorite, can survive without Lawson. Of course, winning the national title without Lawson is unlikely, but no one expected a sprained ankle to be that catastrophic.
So, just like UCLA learned that it could win without point guard Darren Collison against Michigan State last week in Kansas City (Collison returned to play for the first time this season on Wednesday night against George Washington after sitting out with a sprained knee), the Tar Heels (6-0) discovered life isn't so bleak without Lawson.
"This showed a lot for this team to lose a great player and a lot of scoring at the point guard position, and grit out a win," said Bobby Frasor, who replaced Lawson in the starting lineup.
Ohio State held Carolina to 66 points -- not bad considering the Tar Heels averaged 92.2 coming into the game. But without Lawson, the Tar Heels weren't going to be as fast-break oriented.
Yet, North Carolina found a way to weather player of the year favorite Tyler Hansbrough's rather pedestrian offensive effort (6-of-19 for 13 points) by leaning on Wayne Ellington's 3-point shooting (4-of-7 for 23 points), despite a back injury that Ellington suffered during the game and played through.
This win, coupled with the Tar Heels' 73-63 victory over BYU, may end up being two of the most significant wins for the Tar Heels this season.
"To battle the way they did, a man down, says a lot about their program and their team," said Ohio State senior Jamar Butler, who had lost only three previous times in Value City Arena. "I was looking forward to playing against him. Lawson is a big part of their team and as he goes, so goes the team. So for him not to be out there is upsetting, but they still came out and got the win."
The Tar Heels didn't win this game with their patented fast break. They had to scrap and claw their way to a win. The trio of Hansbrough, Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson did a masterful job tangling up Ohio State's heralded freshman Kosta Koufos (1-of-10 shooting for just four points). While Hansbrough had his struggles avoiding Othello Hunter inside (six blocks), the Tar Heels still moved the ball well enough to find the playmakers, notably Ellington.
"This just shows how deep we are as a team," said Ellington, who got burned by Ohio State's freshman shooter Jon Diebler in the first half (four 3s). Ellington shut the Buckeyes freshman down in the second half by picking him up as soon as he crossed midcourt.
"This is a good win without me," said Lawson, who was averaging 10.6 points and 4.6 assists.
The Tar Heels are in the middle of what would seem to be an unheard of road swing for an elite team that could buy a slew of nonconference games. North Carolina will go 28 days -- from Nov. 20 to Dec. 19 -- without playing in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels have already played two games in Las Vegas (Old Dominion and BYU last week) and visited Ohio State on Wednesday. On Saturday, they will travel to Kentucky. After that, they will have road games at Penn (Dec. 4) and Rutgers (Dec. 16).
This is the longest stretch the Tar Heels have been away from home since the 1996-97 season when the team went 36 days between home games. This is only the third time in the last 20 years the Tar Heels have played four true road games prior to New Year's, and this is the first time Roy Williams played six straight games away from home, either as head coach at Kansas or UNC.
The Tar Heels will still get their fair share of home games, playing seven of eight at home from Dec. 19 to Jan. 12. Still, this is unique for a title contender.
The consensus in the Carolina locker room Wednesday was that playing six games in a row away from home is a boon for this squad. The players spoke about the mental and physical toughness earned by winning on the road that will only benefit them come March.
"It's not a big deal for us," Ellington said. "It's helping us bond and will make us a bigger-time basketball team."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.