Most people will remember the North Carolina Tar Heels’ 2009 championship season for how dominant they were in the NCAA tournament.
The Tar Heels won each game by double digits, including an 89-72 win over Michigan State in the national championship game which was never close.
But not every win came easy.
In its second-round game at Greensboro Coliseum, No. 1 seed North Carolina faced a talented No. 8 seed in LSU while arguably the Tar Heels’ best player that year, Ty Lawson, a 5-11, 195-pound point guard, was dealing with a toe injury.
Lawson, the ACC player of the year, struggled initially, but dominated in the second half. He scored 21 points of his 23 in the second half and helped UNC pull out the victory over LSU 84-70.
Attempts to reach Lawson, who is playing in China, were unsuccessful. But this is the story of that game, told by the people who had the closest seats.
The importance of Ty Lawson
Roy Williams (UNC head coach): “(Ty) was the spark. He was the one that drove the bus. Drove the car. Drove the Ferrari at times, whatever it was. The point guard at North Carolina has gotten a lot of responsibilities, and he’s given a lot of leeway. And with Ty, he did both. He had a lot of responsibilities, what offense, what defense, but also, his play dictated what we did a lot and what he was really successful at, and his style of play that he liked was really pushing the basketball.”
Luke DeCock (News & Observer sports columnist): “So obviously that team had big stars. It had (Tyler) Hansbrough, (Wayne) Ellington, it had a lot of unbelievably talented players to go on to the NBA, but Lawson was really the one who made it all work.”
Lenox Rawlings (retired Winston-Salem Journal sports columnist, NC Sports Hall of Fame inductee): “He was kind of like a bull once he got into the lane. And you couldn’t deter him from shooting. He was the best player in the league that year.”
Danny Green (UNC wing 2005-09, Toronto Raptors small forward): “He was our quarterback. Our leader, our point guard. He meant a lot obviously. ... He was a big piece to what we were doing, so without him we wouldn’t have made it as far as we did.”
Lawson injured his right big toe in practice running into a basket stanchion on March 6, 2009, before the final regular season game against Duke. Despite the injury, he still played in the Duke game two days later.
Luke DeCock: “Everyone assumed if he could play at Duke, he could play at the ACC tournament in Atlanta with the toe. But when we got there, he had soaked his foot in an Epsom salt bath at his father’s suggestion after the Duke game, and that had swollen his foot up to the size of a softball or something.”
Steve Robinson (UNC assistant coach): “A home remedy that they had decided to try. Somebody giving him some advice outside of our training staff. He put some Epsom salt on it. All of a sudden it had an adverse reaction. And we didn’t know if we were going to have him or not.”
Jack Wooten (UNC guard 2007-09): “I remember coach Williams not being too happy. That’s just kind of par for the course. That’s a Ty move trying to solve it himself.”
Chris Hirth (UNC basketball trainer 2008-13): “I don’t know even know if he told me, or someone said ‘Hey, Ty did this.’ I can’t remember how I found out. Thinking back to that, it was probably one of those things that I wouldn’t have told him to do that. If he would have asked me, I would have told him let’s hold off on that.”
George Lawson (Ty Lawson’s father): “Well, I made a mistake. Leading up to that, I can’t remember what game it was he played. But when I grew up, we used Epsom salt for a lot of things. For soreness, for sports injuries. I asked him to use Epsom salt. It wasn’t a good idea. It would have been all right if it wasn’t hot Epsom salt.”
Bret Strelow (former Salisbury Post reporter): “He was kind of this carefree, happy-go-lucky personality that people weren’t sure how tough he was, and kind of this fun-loving guy that it would make perfect sense that he would do something like that. He would wear glasses that didn’t have lenses in them. He would answer questions like, ‘Yeah, maybe, probably.’”
George Lawson: “In that time, people are sending me letters telling me ‘if Ty doesn’t play we’re going to come down there and get you.’ I didn’t take it as a legit threat. They were giving me mean looks. Looking at me all crazy.”
No. 1 UNC vs. No. 8 LSU
The Tar Heels entered the NCAA tournament a No. 1 seed and played No. 16-seeded Radford in the first round in Greensboro. Williams held Lawson out of that game and the Tar Heels won 101-58. The Tar Heels advanced to play their second-round game against No. 8-seeded LSU, which had beaten No. 9-seeded Butler. George Lawson sat in the family section behind the team’s bench. North Carolina coach Roy Williams and staff made the final decision to play and start Lawson 15 minutes before tip off.
Roy Williams: “So for us, we had given him some time and we thought that he was going to be OK. But there was still concern about how’s he going to do when he gets in there, how’s he going to do when somebody kicks it, how’s he going to do if somebody comes down and stomps on the toe, kind of thing.“
Trent Johnson (LSU coach, 2008-12): “As explosive and as fast as Carolina was, we felt we could play with them fast and slow, to a certain point. We wanted to be within striking distance.”
Jack Wooten: “Marcus Thornton was an NBA player. They had a couple of big guys who were really good. Tasmin Mitchell. So we knew they were talented and explosive. So it wasn’t a surprise that it was tight.”
Lawson started, but with 11:04 left in the first half, he limped off the court because his toe was bothering him. He was wearing a shoe on his right foot that was one size too big to protect the toe. He finished the first half with two points on 1-of-5 shooting.
Roy Williams: “At that point, I thought, ‘Well, he may not come back.’ The trainer said, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to get him or not.’ I said, ‘OK I’ve got to coach the game.’”
Steve Kirschner (UNC sports information director): “I remember looking down to the end of the bench, Chris is working with him, and I remember thinking, if he can’t play, not only may we not win this game, because we were trailing, but we’re going to have a hard time winning the whole thing.”
Bret Strelow: “I think most people would say the LSU game was probably the most tense that they had in the entire tournament. And maybe it was because of the uncertainty.”
Jack Wooten: “I remember more than anything there being a nervous energy in the building and like a nervous buzz.”
Chris Hirth: “I know he was pretty uncomfortable. I was just listening to what he had to say. Giving him some time to collect himself.”
Trent Johnson: “When guys limp off — if you can walk off, I’m always saying, ‘Ehhh, he’s coming back.’”
George Lawson: “I was looking at him and trying to pick up some facial expressions with his face to see if he would come back. It threw me back to a time when he was real young and he was playing in an AAU game. He was 9 years old and he got injured in the game. He stepped back up. I saw that look that he had that told me he was OK. It was the same type of look that he had when he was young.”
Chris Hirth: “He had let it settle a little bit and really it was seeing how he felt. He said, ‘Yeah, I want to give it a go.’ After he let it rest, he was able to play.”
Roy Williams: “He did. He was a tough little nut.”
Lawson returned four minutes later and finished the first half. The Tar Heels led by nine points at halftime. But LSU started the second half on a 20-8 run to take a three-point lead. Duke fans in the arena began to drown out the cheers of UNC fans. Then the game took a turn.
Trent Johnson: “The guy who had the bad foot he took that damn thing over and that’s what happened.”
Roy Williams: “And (Lawson) made a basket, made a basket, made a basket and each one led to another one. And I think he sort of got on a roll and got in the zone, and lost the concern about his foot.”
Lenox Rawlings: “I remember he had this ridiculous crossover dribble where he froze this guard on the left side and went baseline, and had a reverse shot.”
Steve Robinson: “Ty being Ty.”
Roy Williams: “I don’t know that we win the game without him coming back in and playing as well as he did.”
Chris Hirth: “I was extremely impressed. Toe injuries, they’re very uncomfortable. The fact that he went out there and did what he did was amazing.”
George Lawson: “It wasn’t about the injury any more. It was about winning. It wasn’t about the hurt. He got over the fight of reinjuring himself. He just wanted to go out there and do the best he could.”
Danny Green: “If we didn’t have him, we probably wouldn’t have won that game.”
Roy Williams: “And again, now you’re two weeks away from winning a national championship. And that was our goal throughout the entire season and that’s the goal we talked about. So I think that everybody was really pleased with how he played and said, OK if you can get that toe healthy then we have everything we need, and let’s go play two more weeks.”
Jack Wooten: “Always when you go on a run to the Final Four and you win it all, there is always one game that tests your courage, tests your toughness. And that one was definitely the game for us.”