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College basketball is a guard's game, and North Carolina's backcourt has emerged as possibly the best in the nation with Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington realizing the great potential the two juniors brought to Chapel Hill three years ago.
The pair will lead the second-ranked and top-seeded Tar Heels (30-4) against fourth-seeded and 10th-ranked Gonzaga tonight at approximately 9:57 in the round of 16 in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.
The winner advances to Sunday's regional final with a berth in the Final Four on the line.
When the Bulldogs defeated UNC 82-74 in November of 2006, Lawson and Ellington were freshmen in the first month of their playing careers in college. Lawson had speed, but he lacked an understanding of how to use it wisely and all that a point guard must do to properly handle the job at this level.
"He has matured a lot; that's probably hard to believe," Tyler Hansbrough said, smiling. "He's come a long way. He was one of those guys, as a freshman he started showing up five minutes before practice.
"Now he's here 30 minutes before, trying to help his game out. One thing I've seen in him lately is he is stepping up and showing his toughness. I think that has been different from the past."
Lawson is actually the first to mention maturity when he talks about the difference between his freshman season and now. He's a playful kid that loves to joke with his teammates and coaches, but he's learned that he must also be tough enough to handle criticism, pain and the focus of being the guy who runs the fastest offense in the country.
"I've matured a lot," Lawson said. "I work out a lot more than I did my freshman year. Also, I work on being a leader. I talk more to my teammates on the court.
"Freshman year I was quiet and shy. A lot of things have changed since I stepped foot on this campus."
One thing is his ability to play with pain. When he returned from a sprained big toe against Louisiana State, he had to withstand some obvious pain in the first half. In the second half, he showed no signs of being injured. He shredded the Tigers, first with a couple of important three-point shots and then with his ability to penetrate the defense and attack the basket.
"I didn't know I was going to have a 21-point half, but I always thought I could play through pain," Lawson said of his 23-point performance. "Other people might not have. I just everybody I could go out there and play with pain and still be successful on the court."
Ellington, meanwhile, relied almost exclusively on his jump shot his first season at Carolina. Coach Roy Williams often substituted for Ellington on defense because the rangy athlete from outside Philadelphia had little concept of playing defense at the college level.
Much has changed since then.
"I'm just playing in the flow and having fun," Ellington said. "I think that is what has me really playing well. I'm having fun out there. I'm into the game. I've just raised my game another level.
"It's the time of year when you have to. I think everybody should."
Ellington has proven he has the courage to take a shot at the critical time, even if it doesn't go in the basket. He fielded some criticism, or at least he was singled out when his jumper failed to drop against Georgetown in the round of eight as a freshman and the game on the line.
Since then, he has hit more important shots at critical times than anyone outside of Hansbrough on this team has. When Lawson injured his ankle and missed a month of the season a year ago, Ellington responded by helping Hansbrough carry the team offensively.
He has done the same thing this season when Lawson was hurt or Hansbrough's shot was not falling. Ellington leads the team in scoring in the NCAA Tournament with 24 points per game.
"You don't take bad shots, but at the same time you can't get stagnant and freeze just because a team takes the lead on you," Ellington said. "We've been in situations where we've been down and fought our way back to win games.
"We have been there before and know what it takes to pull it out. You have to be tough player. You have to have a lot of confidence. You can't shy away from those types of moments, and you can't be scared of them. You have to take it as a challenge."