NEW YORK — Brooklyn native Tray Woodall returned to his hometown with a heavy heart and a hot hand.
The Pitt fifth-year senior guard used the latter to overcome his personal grief for one of his best performances.
With his maternal grandmother “severely ill,” Woodall scored a season-high 25 points to lead Pitt past St. John's, 63-47, on Sunday afternoon in a Big East game before 9,129 at Madison Square Garden.
Elizabeth Ratliff, 68, hadn't moved for 10 days — she has yet to be diagnosed, but Woodall said his family believes she might have had a stroke — until Tray visited her at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center on Saturday night in Paterson, N.J.
“My family is going through a tough time, but I had a lot of family here to support me,” said Woodall, who played at national powerhouse St. Anthony's in Jersey City, N.J.
“A guy like me, I don't need any extra motivation. I'm motivated every day when I get up. But it was nice to see my family and have a chance to be around them at this time.”
It was a game Woodall called a “must-win” for the No. 20 Panthers (21-7, 9-6), who were coming off losses at Marquette and to Notre Dame. It moved them out of an eighth-place tie with St. John's (16-11, 8-7), clinched at least a .500 record in conference play and did wonders for their morale and NCAA Tournament hopes.
It marked the third 20-point performance of the season for Woodall, who had 24 against Duquesne on Dec. 5 and 23 against Lehigh on Nov. 13. What made this one special was the location,.
“It's great playing at the Garden, the Mecca of basketball, playing in front of my family and my friends,” Woodall said. “I've been playing here for four years. It's just a great place to play. It was my last regular-season game here, and I wanted to make sure we came out with a win.”
Woodall made 8 of 14 shots from the field, including four 3-pointers, and sank 5 of 6 free throws. He also had four rebounds, two assists, two steals and no turnovers. It was a performance that prompted Pitt coach Jamie Dixon to call Woodall “terrific in every way.”
“I don't think he took a bad shot, and I don't think he made a bad pass,” Dixon said. “That says a lot for 31 minutes there.”
Pitt shot 44 percent (22 of 50) from the field while holding the Red Storm to 31.6 percent (18 of 57). JaKarr Sampson led St. John's with 14 points, six rebounds and three steals, and Phil Greene IV added 11. Top scorer D'Angelo Harrison finished 1 for 12 and finished with six points, 12.3 below his season average.
Woodall, meanwhile, nearly matched his average in the first half, scoring 10 points as Pitt took a 30-27 halftime lead. When Sampson sank two free throws at 19:06 to give St. John's its first lead, 31-30, Woodall sensed the momentum shifting and swore to be the “fearless guard that I am.”
He scored eight points as Pitt responded with a 12-4 run, including a 3-pointer to regain the lead and a three-point play at 16:46 for a 38-33 edge.
“That's what we expect from our leader,” said Pitt swingman Lamar Patterson, who had 11 points, six rebounds and two steals.
“That's just Tray to me. He's been doing that awhile. He always wants to take the big shot. He had the hot hand, and we were finding him. He put the team on his back and led us to this victory.”
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