MEMPHIS -- During the past three seasons, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has often referred to Ty Lawson as "Dennis the Menace," because of his star point guard's love of comic books and his affable personality.
But over the past three weeks, Williams says Lawson has become more like "Rambo."
"He's still Dennis the Menace most times, but he's also Rambo every now and then," Williams said.
If anything was going to derail North Carolina's chances of winning its fifth national championship, it was, of all things, Lawson's right big toe. The junior from Clinton, Md., jammed the toe running into the basket support in practice on March 6.
Lawson labored through the pain during a 79-71 victory over rival Duke on March 8, which clinched the Tar Heels an ACC regular-season title. But Lawson missed both of UNC's games in the ACC tournament and didn't play in its 101-58 rout of No. 16 seed Radford in the NCAA's first round.
When Lawson finally returned to the court against No. 8 seed LSU in the second round, he scored only two points in the first half on March 21.
At that point, even Williams had to wonder if his point guard -- and his team -- would be as explosive again.
Lawson said he never had any doubts, though.
"I wanted to at least get back to the Final Four and win the national championship," he said.
Thanks largely to Lawson's quick recovery, the Tar Heels are two victories away from winning their first national title since 2005. UNC plays No. 3 seed Villanova in Saturday night's national semifinals at Ford Field in Detroit. After routing No. 4 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Oklahoma in last week's South Regional, UNC looks like the team to beat in the Motor City.
"Probably what concerns us most is just the completeness of their team," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "You've got one of the best point guards in the country, who can create shots, who can control the tempo of the game. You've got one of the best big men in the country, who has the ability to play inside-outside. You've got wing players like [Danny] Green and [Wayne] Ellington, who can shoot it and rebound. And you've got a deep bench and length and size. It's just a complete basketball team."
But the past three games of the NCAA tournament showed perhaps no Tar Heel is as important as Lawson, who became the first point guard named ACC player of the year since former UNC star Phil Ford in 1978.
Lawson scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half against LSU, leading the Tar Heels to an 84-70 victory in Greensboro, N.C. He was even better against No. 4 seed Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, scoring 19 points with nine assists. Lawson scored 19 points with five assists in UNC's 72-60 win over No. 2 seed Oklahoma in the South Regional final in Memphis on Sunday. He was named most outstanding player of the South Region.
"He's almost impossible to contain," Sooners coach Jeff Capel said.
An opportunity to get back to the Final Four was the main reason Lawson, Ellington and fellow Tar Heels star Tyler Hansbrough returned to North Carolina this season. Each player considered entering the NBA draft after the 2007-08 season, but none wanted to leave UNC without having won a national championship.
"If Ty had someone who told him he would have gone in the top 15 picks, he would have gone," Williams said. "If Danny and Wayne had been convinced they would be first-round picks, they would have gone. They were not convinced of that. Ty was not convinced. We had no one come forward to say he was going to be their pick, so they had a great option. That great option was to come back and win as many games as they could possibly win and have another chance."
Last season's stunning end certainly wasn't the legacy that Lawson wanted to leave at UNC. In the 2008 NCAA tournament, UNC lost to eventual national champion Kansas 84-66 in the national semifinals in San Antonio. In a shockingly easy victory, the Jayhawks led the Tar Heels by 28 points in the first half. It was such a rout that former CBS announcer Billy Packer declared "game over" long before it was actually over.
"Last year, it was just tough," Lawson said. "I mean, because of how we lost. But we fought back, so I think that was good for us, the way we fought back and showed real heart. That's what's driven us the whole summer. That's why I put up shots and late nights and things like that, to get back to this spot because I want things like that to happen again. All of us have worked so hard all season to get back to the position we're in right now."
Perhaps no UNC player worked harder than Lawson during the offseason. As a sophomore, he averaged 12.7 points and had more than twice as many assists (5.2 per game) as turnovers (2.2).
But Williams was convinced his point guard was capable of doing more.
"He's matured a great deal," Williams said. "He's better defensively. He's made better decisions. I spent his whole sophomore year trying to especially encourage him to look for the outside shot and not ignore that because he can really shoot the ball. I think now he realizes what he can do even more so than he did last year. I think all that helps him. Ty's done a great job with the assist ratio. He's shot a great percentage. He's been really good at times defensively, but probably not as consistent as I've wanted him to be or maybe be as consistent as he's wanted himself to be."
Lawson's teammates have looked for him to be more of a vocal leader on the floor, too. Senior Marcus Ginyard, one of UNC's best perimeter defenders, was supposed to handle that role this season. But Ginyard underwent surgery on Oct. 8 to repair a stress fracture in his foot. He returned to the court for three games at midseason, but wasn't ready and opted to sit out the rest of the season and apply for a medical redshirt.
It was up to Lawson to replace Ginyard's leadership and perimeter defense. Early in the season, some UNC fans questioned whether it would happen. The Tar Heels dropped their first two ACC games for the first time since 1996-97, losing at Boston College 85-78 on Jan. 4 and 92-89 at Wake Forest on Jan. 11.
Lawson took much of the blame for UNC's poor effort.
"You saw the articles and heard the talk and the whole bit after the 0-2 start, everybody complaining about [how Lawson] wasn't as good," Williams said. "I can remember standing in that locker room at Wake Forest, and we're 0-2 in the league. And I told our guys, 'You play from here on out, and we'll be there at the end.' It was not any panic with our coaching staff. The kids believed in us. Ty believed in us. He got a lot of criticism after Tyrese Rice and Jeff Teague, but he doesn't have to take a back seat to anybody. He's tougher now mentally. He's tougher physically."
And Lawson is better than ever.
"I feel like he's become more of a leader for us," Ellington said. "He's always been our quarterback out on the court, but I feel like he's doing a great job by leading by example and just showing a lot of toughness. I think that kind of gets us going. When Ty gets going out there and he's making plays defensively and beating guys offensively, I feel like it gets the rest of us going."
Mark Schlabach covers college basketball and college football for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.