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LSU-Georgia: A growing rivalry between SEC elites

Two strong teams from the same conference, both led by dominant inside players, thrilling crowds with close games whenever they meet - there isn't a much better recipe for a rivalry than that.

LSU's 6-foot-6 Sylvia Fowles and Georgia's 6-3 Tasha Humphrey routinely lead their teams to lopsided victories, but not when they play each other. They meet again Thursday night in a showdown of two ranked teams trying to gain an edge in the race for a Southeastern Conference title.

''When you talk about the battles we've had with Georgia the last few outings, it's always been a one- or two-possession ball game,'' LSU coach Pokey Chatman said Tuesday. ''So you know both teams are extremely familiar with one another and sometimes it boils down to who's going to have the basketball last.''

No. 7 LSU (20-2, 6-1 SEC) has won 15 of 16 games, with double-digit margins in every victory except a 57-55 triumph at home over Georgia on Jan. 7.

No. 14 Georgia (18-4, 5-2) has lost only twice in its last nine games, with one loss coming at LSU and the other a 52-41 home defeat to No. 3 Tennessee in mid-January.

''This game could be a huge momentum shifter for us and give us the confidence and passion we need heading into postseason and finishing out the SEC,'' Humphrey said. ''A lot of people look at us as a basketball team and say, 'They're good, but not as good as LSU and Tennessee.' We want to be one of the teams they mention first.''

Three weeks ago in Baton Rouge, Georgia led 53-48 with 3:52 to go. Fowles had been a force in that game with 20 points and 12 rebounds, but it was backcourt players Quianna Chaney and Allison Hightower combining on a clutch jumper and 3-pointer to tie it before the Lady Tigers pulled it out.

''Coming out of Baton Rouge left us very hungry,'' Humphrey said. ''We learned a lot about LSU.''

In particular, they learned that the Lady Tigers don't fold easily, and that they do not become overly reliant on Fowles when the game is on the line.

Georgia does not see itself as one-dimensional, either, although Humphrey, who averaged 25.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in the Lady Bulldogs' last two wins, is the clear leader.

''I don't think either team would be as successful if they were just a one-woman deal,'' Georgia coach Andy Landers said.

''These teams understand they have a great presence inside and want to utilize it in an intelligent way, but at the same time they also have ability, when those options aren't available to them, to step up and make plays.''

LSU has been doing so with greater regularity of late. Last week, while Arkansas defenders collapsed on Fowles (who had 13 points and 13 rebounds anyway), Chaney scored 15 points and forward Ashley Thomas added 11 to help LSU run away with a 70-53 victory.

Chaney averages 12.3 points per game, second on LSU only to Fowles' 17.3 average. Thomas, who averages 5.1 points, has raised her offensive production in LSU's last two victories, scoring 11 in each.

''She's knocking down that high post jump shot,'' Chatman said. ''It's important for her to find those shots ... to get that nice little 12- to 14-footer.''

Still, Chatman made it clear she's counting on a big game from Fowles, who blocks shots and rebounds well even when her scoring is limited by double- and triple-teams. Fowles averages 11.5 rebounds a game and had 20 last Sunday against Auburn. It seems only foul trouble can stop Fowles.

''It's extremely important for her to play smart,'' Chatman said. ''When you look at the talent Georgia can run at Sylvia, we need her on the floor.''

And Chatman worries about Humphrey, who may be at a slight size disadvantage to Fowles but has a better outside shot.

''She's such a presence in the paint, but she's also a threat when she's facing the basket from long range with her ability to take a big defender away from the basket,'' Chatman said.

Humphrey said she and Fowles are friends, so there's not the type of personal dislike that sometimes adds a little spice to a matchup of rival star players. But that matters little when they're battling on the court, she said.

''I like going out there and banging with Sylvia. We challenge each other,'' Humphrey said. ''She's taller and more agile, but I have more range. I'm not dominating on the defensive end like she is, but I do what I can.''