GREENSBORO, N.C. -- North Carolina point guard Ty Lawson sat on a couch in the bowels of the Greensboro Coliseum clutching a prescription from the Campus Health Center in Chapel Hill in his right hand.
On a scale of 1 to 10, he said, the pain was slowly swelling to a seven, just like his jammed right big toe.
"It's swelling up right now as we speak," he said.
He hid it well.
In the second half against LSU, adrenaline overcame the pain, and Lawson became the catalyst behind the No. 1-seeded Tar Heels' 84-70 win. North Carolina is deep enough that it's a good team without him -- it has proved that over the past three games -- but it has the potential to be a great team when Lawson is on the court.
Lawson, the ACC Player of the Year, played for the first time in three games, and he played so well in the second half that teammate Bobby Frasor wondered aloud with a smile why Lawson didn't play like that the whole season. The stat line: 23 points, six assists, no turnovers, two steals, 7-of-7 from the free throw line, 31 minutes. And 21 of those points came in the second half.
"No, you don't get anything like that from Ty," Frasor said. "He's kind of just like 'la-de-da,' walking out there on the court, and then he makes a 3 and boom, he's showing some emotion, he's into it, and it's just like, play like that all the time."
While Lawson was getting treatment and ice for his toe after the game, and forward Tyler Hansbrough was being treated for a cut above his eye, LSU coach Trent Johnson paced the hallway outside his team's locker room, taking his hands off his hips for a split second to pound once on the concrete wall. Inside LSU's locker room, guard Bo Spencer said the Tar Heels wouldn't have won if Lawson hadn't played.
"You take his 23 away," Spencer said, "and it's a blowout."
Would they have won without Lawson?
"We'll never know," coach Roy Williams said, laughing. "That's the only answer I can give you."
Whether Lawson would play was a game-time decision, and Williams said he still wasn't convinced after the team's afternoon practice Friday that Lawson would play. He didn't have any swelling, though, which was an encouraging sign. On Saturday morning, Lawson left out the gel pad in his shoes and couldn't do as much at the shootaround.
"I walked out about 15 minutes in the warm-up and said, 'Compare how you felt two weeks ago when we played against Duke,'" Williams said. "He said, 'I feel a little better.' I said, 'I'm not talking about after you had the shot. I'm talking about before you had the shot.' He said, 'I feel a little bit better.' That's why we decided to put him in as a starter."
It didn't last too long. Lawson struggled shooting -- 1-of-5 from the field -- and eventually took a seat at the end of the bench, wincing in pain.
"I tried to pivot off the toe, and I heard something pop in my foot," he said. "There was immediate pain, so I had to take myself out. The trainer looked at it and said I probably popped scar tissue, which we were trying to get rid of anyway. Hopefully it was a good thing."
It couldn't have been much better in the second half. Lawson came out of the locker room and hit two big 3s, the second of which tied the game at 44 and brought the mainly pro-Carolina crowd to its feet. He scored seven points in a 17-2 run late in the second half that put UNC ahead 80-65.
Lawson's performance wasn't a surprise to his teammates, despite the fact that he's practiced gingerly on the toe in recent weeks.
"I know how tough he can be," Danny Green said. "Sometimes he does limp around sometimes and act soft, but I know how tough he can be. When the game's on the line, big-time players step up and do big-time things. I knew he was going to step up and do some things for us."
At one point in the second half, Lawson juked an LSU defender with a crossover near the baseline and the Tar Heels fans went nuts.
"I didn't think he still had it in him," Green said. "It was a great move. The better part was that he finished the play. But that kind of I guess made a statement for him that he was back, pretty much. So I expect him to keep doing that from now on."
If he does, odds are LSU won't be the last team left to hang their heads in the locker room.