Tar Heels feel Lawson's absence hard in loss to Blue Devils
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Ty Lawson sat helplessly on the bench, a black brace around his left ankle and his uniform underneath his warm-up shirt.
A sprained ankle kept the North Carolina point guard out of one of the biggest games of his career, and the No. 3 Tar Heels felt his absence throughout an 89-78 loss to No. 2 Duke on Wednesday night.
"Everybody in the country already knows how important [Lawson] is," forward Deon Thompson said. "I don't think there's a better point guard in the country than him, so you know how important he is."
With former third-stringer Quentin Thomas replacing him in the lineup, the Tar Heels (21-2, 6-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) simply couldn't keep control of the tempo long enough to make a difference.
"It's just a hurdle we need, as a team, to get over," Thomas said. "It didn't happen tonight."
That's largely because they had serious trouble controlling the tempo against the smaller, quicker Blue Devils who -- aware that they stood no chance in anything resembling a low-post slugfest -- were determined to force the guards to decide this one.
"We should have [taken] more advantage of our size, but with me in foul trouble, we just weren't able to," said the 6-foot-8 Thompson, who picked up his fourth foul with about 17 minutes left.
North Carolina couldn't stop Duke from 3-point range, allowing the Blue Devils to hit 13 of 29 attempts from beyond the arc. Its guards failed to generate much production of their own from the perimeter, with sharpshooter Wayne Ellington 0-for-6 from 3 and 3-of-14 overall.
"It comes down to making shots, basically, on the offensive end," said Marcus Ginyard, a swingman pressed into service as an emergency point guard. "When you're getting great shots, you've still got to put them in, and we had a lot of bad shots, and we had some good shots that we just didn't put in."
And because of that, the Tar Heels couldn't complement forward Tyler Hansbrough, who scored 28 points but took nearly one-third of the team's 69 total shots.
"If your outside shots are falling, it definitely helps things down low," Hansbrough said.
The threat of Lawson, a drive-and-dish distributor who averages 13.6 points and ranks third in the ACC in assists, surely would have made things different.
"Their transition wasn't as fast because of him," Duke's Gerald Henderson said. "He's a real jet."
Lawson took part in the pregame shootaround, but was ruled out minutes before tipoff due to the injury he suffered three days earlier at Florida State.
"It was really an easy decision -- I told him, 'If [you] had doubts about it, then I was not going to play you,'" coach Roy Williams said. "He came to me and he said, 'I don't know,' and said he doesn't feel good. And I said, 'Well, then, we're not going to play.'"
Thomas, his replacement making just his second start and first since his first career game in 2004, had seven assists and six turnovers, and repeatedly seemed to have trouble keeping up with Duke's Greg Paulus.
"I definitely turned the ball over too much [and] on the defensive end, I definitely feel I didn't play well," Thomas said. "I felt like I could have done so much more than I did and didn't do to help this team."
Paulus finished with 18 points, knocked down six 3-pointers and delivered one of the game's lasting images.
Moments after Ginyard's 3-pointer pulled North Carolina within six points at the 6-minute mark, Paulus drove hard toward the left corner and swished a fallaway 3 of his own to push the lead to 74-65 and deflate the crowd.
Early on at least, Thomas and the other guards had difficulty luring the Blue Devils into playing Hansbrough's favorite style of basketball -- pounding the ball into their star big man in the post, drawing contact and knocking down free throws.
Hansbrough couldn't get to the line in the first half, didn't attempt his first free throw until 17:25 remained in the game and finished just 4-of-9 from the stripe.
Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press