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Lawal, Thompkins keep rivalry friendly

ATLANTA - The athletic rivalry between Georgia Tech and Georgia has divided many a family and caused tension in a lot of friendships over the years.

In the case of Gani Lawal and Howard "Trey" Thompkins, however, the rivalry remains a friendly one - even after a 67-62 victory by Lawal and the Yellow Jackets over Thompkins and the Bulldogs on Tuesday night at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

"Gani's one of my best friends," Thompkins said following Tuesday's game. "Every time me and him get a chance to talk, we say, 'Let's battle,' and that's what it came down to be. They got the better of us his time."

Despite the fact that Lawal and Thompkins played high school ball literally across the street from each other at Norcross and Wesleyan respectively, the two met just once on the prep level. Ironically, that showdown occurred the one year Thompkins spent away from Gwinnett County.

Thompkins finished with 11 points and seven rebounds to help Oak Hill Academy of Virginia overcome Lawal's 23 points and nine rebounds to beat Norcross that night, also ironically, on the very floor where he squared off with Lawal again Tuesday night.

As it turned out, the personal rivalry between the former Gwinnett County high school standouts was at least as intriguing as the one between their respective teams during the most recent matchup.

Statistically, it was pretty much a draw.

Lawal posted his eighth double-double of the season with 15 points and a game-high 14 rebounds, while Thompkins led all scorers with 20 points and pulled down nine rebounds.

Of course, Lawal's team got the better of Thompkins' on the evening, especially in the second half, when the 6-foot-9, 233-pound sophomore posted 10 of his points and eight of his rebounds despite sitting almost half of the final frame with foul trouble.

That performance helped Tech (9-5) overcome multiple double-digit deficits - including a 10-point halftime hole - gained by the Bulldogs (9-6) due in no small part to the work of Thompkins, who posted 13 points and seven boards in the first half.

"I've known Howard for a long time, and he's an extremely talented player," Lawal said. "Towards the second half, we just wanted to be more physical - press up more on him, be long on him and try to alter his shot. And off those misses, we wanted to crash the boards and get rebounds."

The heightened up effort by Lawal and Tech frontcourt mates Zachery Peacock (18 points, 13 rebounds) and Alade Aminu (eight points, nine rebounds) did have an impact on helping the Jackets keep Thompkins under control in the second half.

But as Bulldogs coach Dennis Felton pointed out, a defensive adjustment by the Jackets' guards by going to a fullcourt trap may have had a bigger - if more indirect - impact on Thompkins.

"Sure (it did). A little bit," Felton said. "The way (Tech) started defending us (in the second half) - there wasn't any traditional offense to be run anymore. It was all about dealing with traps and making plays ... with a lot of pressure coming at you.

"When you're playing against that kind of defense, you've simply got to read what they're doing and take what they give you and we still have a long way to go as a team to be better at handling that kind of pressure."

While Georgia had more trouble getting the ball to Thompkins in the second half, the 6-9, 247-pound freshman certainly reinforced how valuable he's become when he gets it.

He leads the Bulldogs in both scoring (14.4 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 rpg) despite being bothered by nagging injuries during the offseason and missing the first four games of the season.

If he keeps up at this pace, he would become the first freshman to lead Georgia in both categories since Jumaine Jones in 1997-98.

"Trey is clearly one of the best freshmen in the country," Felton said. "I can't call it anything short of spectacular what he's doing right now. He missed four months of activity ... For him to jump in midstream and accomplish what he's accomplishing is awfully commendable. And he is getting better every game. He's learning how to play at the college level, but he's playing at a high level while he's learning."

Meanwhile, Lawal continues to impress at Tech, also leading the Jackets in both scoring (17.0 ppg) and rebounding (10.0 rpg).

And while his teammates were able to keep their heads when he went to the bench with four fouls with 12:31 remaining in Tuesday's game, Lawal showed just how valuable he is to Tech, scoring six points and pulling down five rebounds in the final 4:20 after his return.

"I just had to go to the bench and support my team," Lawal said of his foul trouble. "But that wasn't the end of the game. We still had a lot of ball to play."