WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Rather than being a clash in styles, North Carolina's 81-67 win over Michigan State was a combination of the rapid pace Carolina prefers and Tom Izzo's club's trademark physical play.
Lightning-quick Lawson and brawnish Hansbrough combined to carry Carolina in the second half, allowing the Heels to keep the game up-tempo while absorbing every bit of punishment the physical Spartans had to offer. UNC's ability to simultaneously impose its game upon the Spartans while handling their rough and rugged style might have shaken any remaining belief that the Tar Heels lack toughness.
And, for the first time since January, North Carolina looked like a championship-caliber team.
Hansbrough scored a season-high 33 points and collected nine rebounds, and Lawson directed the offense while scoring 20 points and dishing out eight assists and turning the ball over only once. In the second half, they were the compass that gave UNC direction. The duo ran off 20 of Carolina's 23 points during a span of 10:28 that snatched the lead back from Michigan State and eventually put the game away.
"They had the momentum going," Lawson said. "I did what we had to do to get some shots." That meant everything from penetrating for layups, finding Hansbrough in the lane so he could bull his way to the rim and foul line, and drilling big 3-pointers.
Most important for Carolina, Lawson is providing definitive evidence that he is the guiding force for the Heels' offense. After dishing out 32 assists against five turnovers in five postseason games, he's no longer an X factor. He's in control.
"Coach was saying, 'Take a leadership role,'" Lawson said. " Earlier in the year, I was catering to others and just passing off. Now I'm doing whatever it takes to win."
In other words, he's doing what coach Roy Williams always thought he could.
"I don't ever want my teams to be hesitant, to be on their heels. We want to come after people," Williams said. "For the way I want to play, Tywon Lawson has all the abilities I've ever wanted in a point guard."
For a game like Saturday's, there might not be anyone in the country better than Hansbrough (who shed the mask protecting his broken nose with 12:33 left in the first half). He's as capable as any big man in college to handle pounding in the lane, but his ability to get off good shots through the contact made his first 30-point game of the season possible.
"I've never seen a guy like him that has [such] good hands," Izzo said. "Hands and balance are probably two things that he has superior on a lot of people."
Hands and balance were the two things that made Sean May so unstoppable during UNC's 2005 title run, just as control of the offense made Raymond Felton so essential. What the 2007 Carolina team seemed to lack is someone to fill the role of Rashad McCants, the player who could be counted on to take -- and make -- clutch shots from the perimeter.
Tonight, that role was filled by senior Reyshawn Terry, who took the load from Lawson and Hansbrough in the game's final four minutes.
"When it got to crunch time," Williams said, "Reyshawn decided he wanted his senior season to continue."
Terry, a game-time decision after suffering from migraine headaches most of the day, scored nine of his 14 points in the final 3:53 of the game, including six straight that effectively ended the contest. Those points, including two big jumpers, turned a 68-63 lead into an insurmountable 74-65 advantage.
Terry said the headaches were a concern before the game but not so much after tip-off.
"Earlier on, it was kind of tough because every time I ran, my head was banging a little bit," he said. "I fought it off and we won the game, so I don't worry about the pain at all."
Aside from handling the play in the lane, the Tar Heels did a great job of following Spartans guard Drew Neitzel all over the floor. Michigan State's leading scorer put up 26 points, but he was held to 9-of-27 shooting by a combination of Lawson, senior Wes Miller and sophomore Marcus Ginyard. More than anything, though, Neitzel was guarded by his own legs, weary from a season of logging huge minutes and a game in which he seemed to be chased constantly by energetic defenders.
"I think that was their game plan coming in, to try to wear us down by sending fresh bodies at us," Neitzel said.
Ginyard said there was something more important than that in Carolina's strategy.
"The last point of emphasis for us was to work," he said.
That work was evident in how often the Heels hit the floor, constantly tussling for rebounds and loose balls. The Tar Heels' dominance on the boards was particularly impressive. Carolina won the battle of the boards 40-29, playing against a Michigan State program that has always had rebounding as a hallmark.
Ginyard, who has openly questioned his team's desire to win, loved what he saw: A team that was "getting on those loose balls, fighting for rebounds. The referees were having to tell the bench to sit down."
That intensity fueled Carolina's best performance since the 92-64 mauling of Arizona on Jan. 27.
"We were sensational," Williams said. "From a toughness viewpoint, this was very impressive today."
Toughness was a word writers and players threw around after the game. It was widely believed that the Tar Heels needed to show more grit to win a title, and tonight might have shown they have that necessary intangible.
"We challenged ourselves to not let anyone say we're not tough enough," Ginyard said.
They were certainly tough enough tonight. Now, they must keep it up for four more games.
Bomani Jones is a columnist for Page 2. Tell him how you feel at email@example.com.