CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Ty Lawson is starting to feel better, just in time for North Carolina.
The speedy point guard said his troublesome toe is still achy after returning to the lineup over the weekend, but he plans to play in the Tar Heels’ game against Gonzaga on Friday. And coach Roy Williams also sounds optimistic, too, that the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year will be ready for the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.
“It’s getting better,” Lawson said Tuesday. “I’m walking on it better. Hopefully in a couple of days, it’ll be back to 100 percent.”
Lawson had missed three straight games with a jammed right big toe before helping the top-seeded Tar Heels (30-4) rally past LSU in Saturday’s second-round game in the South Regional. He experienced some minor swelling in the toe afterward, but nothing like what followed the regular-season finale against Duke that forced him to the sideline.
He participated in the team’s shootaround Monday and expected to go through some drills during practice this week. But the team has been cautious, keeping him out of practice for almost two weeks, in addition to missing both of the Tar Heels’ ACC tournament games and their NCAA opener against Radford.
Williams said the injury will linger.
“It’s here,” he said. “It’s going to be here. It’s not going to go away. It’s going to hurt the whole rest of the season until he can take that time off.”
Lawson injured the toe in practice two days before the Duke game and needed a painkilling shot beforehand. He nearly had a triple-double in 36 minutes in the win, but the toe swelled unexpectedly afterward. It turned out Lawson — on advice from his father — might have exacerbated the problem when he soaked his foot that night in hot water and Epsom salt.
These days, Lawson is sticking to a steady regimen of icing his foot in the morning, before practice and after practice. Then, when he’s at home, he fills a trash can with ice and water and soaks his foot a few more times in the evening. He’s also worn a compression wrap to limit swelling and exercised in a swimming pool.
The injury has been the topic of conversation around Chapel Hill for weeks, creating a hubbub that has grown tiresome for his teammates.
“I get a lot of questions about how does Ty’s toe feel?” senior Tyler Hansbrough said. “I’m like, ‘It’s not my toe. I don’t know.’ I don’t ask him how his toe’s doing because I’m sure 100 other people have. I understand other people’s curiosity. They want to know if he’ll be able to go because of his impact on this team and what he’s done this year. Either way, I thought we were a solid team with or without him.”
Still, Lawson makes the Tar Heels’ fast-paced offense go — and that was apparent during his return against LSU.
After fans greeted him with a loud roar that drowned out his name during starting lineups, the junior looked rusty and hesitant early on. At one point in the first half, he came out of the game after feeling a pop in his toe, took off his shoe and was in obvious discomfort while a trainer looked at him on the bench.
But he got better as the game wore on, helping the Tar Heels rally from a five-point deficit midway through the second half. He finished with 21 of his 23 points after the break, including a pair of driving baskets during the decisive 11-0 second-half run that looked like the same ol’ Lawson.
“I don’t think he’s going to be 100 percent,” Williams said. “But we’ll take whatever we can get, especially if it’s like that performance Saturday. That’s about as good as I’ve had a point guard play in 21 years as a head coach. I even told him that I was thinking of calling him ‘Rambo’ instead of ‘Dennis the Menace.'”
Lawson said the performance gave him confidence, joking that it proved the toe “wouldn’t fall off” as he tried to play at his normal fleet-footed pace. He’s also hoping it will answer all the questions about the injury.
“It’s just one toe,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. But to everybody else, I guess it is. I’m just trying to get it better. I’m ready for it to be over.”