Pitt Senior Day: A first for two families

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Theresa Ratliff sent her son, Tray Woodall, off to play college basketball in Pittsburgh five years ago in hopes that he could escape the dangerous environs in which he was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Patterson, N.J. Benjamin Taylor and Lisa Sharpe, of Greenburgh, N.Y., had many of the same hopes when they sent their son, Dante, to play at Pitt.

Today against Villanova, in the final home game their sons will play, Woodall's and Taylor's parents will watch their sons compete at the Petersen Events Center for the first time.

"It's a great feeling," Woodall said of having his mother, sister and other extended family present. "It's going to be a great atmosphere. They don't get out of New Jersey or New York often. It will be a great opportunity to see the opportunities I have coming from what we came from."

For both players, family considerations and financial restraints have prevented it from happening until now. Taylor said his mother cares for his grandmother, and even if she was able to get away for a few days, the family does not have the money for trips to Pittsburgh.

"For them to watch me in a home game, it will be really exciting," Taylor said. "It will definitely be emotional. It's a great place to play, a great environment. I've been here for four years so it's like my second home. It will definitely be something to remember, something I'll never forget."

Even though they are separated by a recruiting class -- Woodall is a fifth-year senior -- Pitt's senior duo has been close since Taylor arrived on campus in 2009. They have lived in the same off-campus apartment for three years and share a close bond on and off the court.

"At this stage, I consider him my brother," Taylor said. "That's how close we are. We spend every day together. We do everything together. I figured out he was the right guy to be around early on. I've learned a lot from him."

Woodall and Taylor can accomplish something special by winning today and a couple of more times before the season ends. They are three victories shy of 100 and would become the ninth senior class at Pitt to reach 100 victories.

Woodall participated in 10 games as a freshman -- all victories -- before sitting out the remainder of the season with a medical redshirt. That was the 2008-09 season when the Panthers tied a school record with 31 victories and advanced to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament.

Scouting report

  • Matchup:

    No. 23 Pitt (22-7, 10-6 Big East) vs. Villanova (18-11, 9-7), noon today, Petersen Events Center.

  • TV, Radio, Internet:

    Root Sports, KDKA-FM (93.7), www.pittsburghpanthers.com.

  • Pitt:

    Coming off 64-44 victory Wednesday against South Florida. ... Beat Villanova, 58-43, Jan. 16 in Philadelphia. ... Has won five consecutive games in the series and has never lost to Villanova at Petersen Events Center (5-0). ... Senior G Tray Woodall (11.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg) has reached double figures in eight consecutive games. ... Freshman G James Robinson (5.8 ppg, 3.5 apg) has just 21 turnovers in 16 conference games.

  • Villanova:

    Coming off 66-65 loss Monday at Seton Hall. ... Had won five of six before that setback. ... 3-5 in conference road games. ... Led by JayVaughn Pinkston (12.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg), Ryan Arcidiacono (11.8 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Darrun Hilliard (11.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg).

  • Hidden stat:

    This is the final scheduled game in the series with Villanova. Each team has won 32 games in a series that dates to 1960.

Even though he was not an active participant on that team, Woodall said being around players such as Sam Young, Levance Fields and DeJuan Blair continues to shape him. He specifically mentioned being present for that season when asked to recount his career highlights.

"My whole career is a highlight, but my freshman year seeing how those guys worked and handled themselves, getting to the Elite Eight, that's something I always carried with me and relate to my teammates," said Woodall, who earlier this season became one of seven players in school history to score 1,000 points and dish out 500 assists. "I definitely want to surpass that."

Taylor arrived the next season with as much hype as anyone head coach Jamie Dixon has recruited. Dixon's first McDonald's All-American recruit, Taylor scored 13 points in his debut game, but he has struggled with injuries and living up to the high expectations throughout his career.

Taylor played two seasons as the backup center behind Gary McGhee as a freshman and sophomore. He started 20 games last season, but gave way to Big East preseason rookie of the year Steven Adams this season and accepted a role off the bench.

Taylor had one of the best games of his career Wednesday night in a victory against South Florida when he scored 12 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for his third career double-double.

"He's playing like you hope a senior is going to play," Dixon said. "He's always been a great kid and an important part of our success."

Pitt has won 9 of its past 12 after a 1-3 start to Big East play and has a chance to complete the biggest one-season turnaround since the Panthers joined the Big East in 1982. They won five Big East games last season and, with two more this season, can reach 12.

The biggest one-season turnaround in Big East play from one season to the next is six games, accomplished twice (1985-86 to 1986-87 and 2000-01 to 2001-02).

"I think it's been great," Dixon said. "Those two guys, they've been a part of a lot of wins. These two guys have been playing their best basketball these last couple of weeks. They've practiced that same way. We haven't won every game, but we've played well. We've gotten better and I think it's because of what they're doing.

"I'm just really happy for them because of how well they're playing. That's something you hope to see. It doesn't always work out that way, but they're playing really good basketball on the offensive and defensive end."

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Ray Fittipaldo: rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published March 3, 2013 5:00 AM


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