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Lawal For One...

Jan. 13, 2010

by Jon Cooper, Contributing Editor

ATLANTA — When Gani Lawal chose to come back to school for his junior season, there was a collective sigh of relief on The Flats.

After Saturday, college basketball fans nationwide could understand why.

Obviously he’s getting it done on both ends of the floor, leading the team in scoring at 15.7 points per game (ninth in the ACC), field goal percentage (minimum 25 attempts) at .577, (second in the ACC) and 3.3 offensive rebounds (fourth) and defensively sets the pace with 9.4 rebounds (third in the ACC).

But the Norcross High graduate’s impact isn’t measured merely by numbers, and isn’t only on display when ESPN cameras are on.

“He’s a great leader for these guys,” said Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt following Saturday’s 71-67 victory over Duke. “He gets them fired up before the games. You see him get the 21 and 9 but he does a lot behind the scenes with these guys to really keep them pumped up.”

It was the work on the court, especially against Duke on ESPN, that led to Lawal being named ACC Player of the Week for the second time in his career. He had a pair of 21-point games as the Jackets split, losing to Georgia, where he scored his 900th point, then beating the No. 5 Blue Devils.

“Gani’s got another gear that most big men don’t have,” said guard Iman Shumpert. “He’s always had it, but this year he knows when to turn it on. At the end of the (Duke) game, you could really see. They’re trying to make lay-ups, he’s up there blocking it, then he’s beating everybody down court asking for the ball, then he’s coming up to set the ball screen. I missed a shot and he comes up getting the tip-dunk. He’s got another gear that he’s using this year.”

The victory over the Blue Devils showed a lot about how the Jackets, ranked No. 18 in the most recent polls, can handle the nation’s best, but more important, showed how Lawal and his teammates can handle adversity.

“Forget about it,” he said. “Learn from it and move on.”

That’s something Lawal did, only two games prior to the UGA game, when he was held to a season-low two points by Winston-Salem State. It was the third of a three-game stretch that saw Lawal make a total of four field goals in 75 minutes and was the last straw.

He took a hard look at himself.

“I’m a competitor and I’m a workhorse. I did take it a little personally but I didn’t get down on myself,” he said. “I said, ‘I can’t come out and have that type of performance any more. I have to work hard and be a little more assertive.’ Up until that Winston-Salem game I didn’t think I was as aggressive as I should be. From that point on I said I’m going to be mindful of that.”

In the three games since then he’s put up 37 shots and made 21 (.568). From the foul line he’s been even better, shooting .784 (29-for-37). The foul shooting is especially impressive, as Lawal came into the year shooting .536 from the line.

“They’ve been working at it, Gani especially,” said Hewitt. “You just see the maturation. Part of where you see that maturity is on the free throw line. (Jan. 2 at Charlotte) he was 17 for 20 and made all of them down the stretch.”

Lawal hit his final 12 attempts at Charlotte. It’s becoming a trend that as the game gets later, Lawal gets better. He’s shooting .645 in the second half of games and, In the final five minutes, he is hitting .824 (14-for-17) from the foul line, tied for the team lead with freshman Mfon Udofia.

Udofia, who is third in scoring among ACC freshman (10.9, 12.5 in ACC games), and was Conference Rookie of the Week on Dec. 7, credits Lawal for his quick adapting to college ball.

“I look at Gani as like my big brother,” Udofia said. “I always wanted to play with Gani and now that I get to play with Gani, any little thing that goes wrong I always go to talk to Gani on and off the court. He keeps me motivated, keeps us hyped and keeps the whole team motivated. He always tells us that we’re champions and we’ve got to believe that.”

“I feel we have the best front court in the country and when we’re on top of our game nobody can stop us,” said Lawal. “That’s not to say other front courts aren’t worthy. I’m not being cocky. That’s just the way I feel about our front court.”

Hewitt knows he won’t let his teammates get cocky, either. Lawal knows the difference between getting confidence into the heads of the team’s youngsters and letting that success go to their heads.

“They’re going to go out and everybody’s going to be patting them on the back and telling them how great they are,” said Hewitt. “I’m glad I’ve got Gani in the locker room to remind them that as soon as you drop one you ‘aren’t supposed to drop’ they’re going to disappear again.”

Lawal, on the other hand, isn’t going anywhere. He’s right there, getting in the faces of his teammates and lifting their spirits.

His teammates credited Gani’s motivational talk at halftime for providing the spark that lifted the Jackets in the second half to a 42-32 scoring edge and 26-12 edge on the glass (11-2 on the offensive end) against Duke.

Evidently, he’s no longer content to wait until halftime as he’s come up with a pre-game locker room ritual to get the team going.

“We were trying to find a pre-game ritual and Gani definitely came up with one that we like,” said Shumpert.

“I can’t tell you,” he added with a laugh when pressed for specifics. “It’s just our thing that we do. If they somehow get it on camera, that’s okay. But I can’t just tell.”

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