Ron Cook: Graves grows up before our eyes
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You wonder about the mind-set, then and now.
Then, Antonio Graves was a kid, 17, not just a freshman, but the last of new Pitt coach Jamie Dixon's recruits in 2003. Suddenly, the ball and his team's undefeated season were in his hands at Connecticut, the clock ticking toward nothing. Pitt, 18-0 and ranked No. 8, trailed, 68-65, when he let loose with a 3-point shot from the left of the free-throw line. It clanged off the front of the rim as the raucous Connecticut crowd went wild.
Now, Graves is a man, 21, not just a senior, but the type of resilient, enduring player who has made the Pitt program so successful. Suddenly, the ball and his team's grip on first place in the Big East Conference were in his hands at Villanova last week, the clock ticking below 2 minutes. Pitt, 19-3 and ranked No. 7, led, 54-53, when he let loose with a 3-pointer from the left of the free-throw line. It went down, and Pitt won, 65-59.
What a difference four years makes.
"I'm a lot more comfortable now, more poised," Graves said. "I've been through it all. I've seen it all."
That maturity is a big reason Pitt sits atop the Big East standings going into its game tonight against West Virginia in Morgantown.
That experience is why Pitt has a good chance to win not only the league's regular-season and tournament titles, but also to go deep in the NCAA tournament.
Graves is the prototypical Pitt player, a kid who sticks around for four years and gets better each year. Pitt has become a Big East and national power, in large part, because it always has seniors on the floor, this year Aaron Gray and Levon Kendall in addition to Graves. In the Dixon era -- actually, going back to Ben Howland before him -- Pitt has lost only one player early to the NBA. Chris Taft left after his sophomore year in 2005.
"I'm just as proud that we don't have kids transferring," Dixon said. "They like it here. They stay here. They all graduate."
Graves said he will get his degree in communication and rhetoric this summer, becoming the first college graduate in his family. He also said he has no idea where four years have gone.
It seems like yesterday that Graves was preparing to attend prep school. A number of smaller basketball schools, including Evansville, had found him in Mansfield, Ohio, but his dream was to play at a bigger school.
"I knew I was better than a mid-major. I knew I could compete with anybody," Graves said.
"All my friends had the same dream as kids. It was like all of us said, 'I'm going to play at Duke.' But, somewhere along the way, they lost that dream and gave up hope. That wasn't me. I wasn't going to give up."
Dixon found Graves at an AAU tournament in Las Vegas. A high-profile recruit from Detroit -- Walter Waters -- had changed his mind with Dixon's blessing about coming to Pitt, going to Cleveland State instead and eventually left the team after one season. Dixon offered the scholarship to Graves in August, only hours before classes started.
"Other coaches laugh at me because I say there's always a player out there," Dixon said. "But it's true. You just have to find him."
The next thing Graves knew, the ball was in his hands at Connecticut. He had played only briefly in the first half after Julius Page got in foul trouble, and he ended up guarding Connecticut star Ben Gordon. "I was kind of in awe," he said. He spent the second half on the bench until Dixon put him in late for offense.
The same thing happened at Seton Hall three weeks later. Graves sat the entire second half, then found himself in a tight game in double overtime after Carl Krauser fouled out. This time, his running one-hander with 3 seconds left missed and Pitt lost, 68-67.
"I lost sleep over that one," Graves said.
"The plan was to get the ball to Jaron [Brown], but he was covered. I started to the basket and wanted to pass to Chris [Taft], but I saw that his guy stayed with him and didn't take me. I ended up shooting too quickly. I had time to take it all the way. That was just inexperience on my part."
Graves had no such indecision at Villanova last week. He knew there was a good chance the ball would be coming to him when teammate Mike Cook started a drive toward the basket. He's Pitt's third-leading scorer behind Gray and Cook at 10.3 points per game. He's a 44.4 percent shooter from 3-point range. He isn't in awe anymore. He has so much confidence when he lets the ball go ...
"I was just so into the flow of that game," Graves said. "I didn't even realize it was a big shot until I looked at the score and the clock. I was like, 'Whoa! That was big.'
"I was prepared for that shot. When preparation meets opportunity, that's when you're usually successful."
Especially when you're a senior.
Isn't it amazing how that works?
First Published February 7, 2007 12:00 am