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Pitt seniors, good friends Woodall, Taylor set for final home game

| Saturday, March 2, 2013, 8:58 p.m.
Pitt's Dante Taylor (left) and Tray Woodall appear late in the second half against St. John's on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, at Madison Square Garden in New York. (AP)

Tray Woodall and Dante Taylor arrived at Pitt amid differing expectations. One was a precocious point guard destined to be a backup, the other a forward with the fanfare of being the Panthers' first McDonald's All-American recruit in two decades.

They became best friends and roommates, bonded by being raised by single mothers in the projects. “He's a 6-foot-9 version of myself,” Woodall said, “and I'm a 6-foot version of him.”

They also are joined by juxtaposition, after traveling in opposite trajectories. Taylor, touted as Pitt's next star, spent most of his career as a backup center. Woodall blossomed from backup into an unquestioned leader who comes through in the clutch.

Woodall and Taylor will play their final game at Petersen Events Center when the No. 23 Panthers (22-7, 10-6 Big East) host Villanova (18-11, 9-7) at noon Sunday.

What makes this extra special for the Pitt seniors is that their mothers, Theresa Ratliff and Lisa Sharpe, will be in Pittsburgh to watch for the first time.

“We're just guys who want to make sure we finish our career the right way,” Woodall said. “We're two guys who have learned since we came here, guys who want to improve every year.

“Once people look at our careers, they'll realize that we improved year to year, with all the expectations and all the doubts. At the end of the day, we want them to know that we are winners. We've been winning all our life, and being here is a tribute to us winning.”

Woodall wasn't referring to the 97-39 record they have compiled — they need three more to become the ninth senior class in Pitt history to win 100 or more games — but rather the obstacles in life they have overcome to become the first in their families to graduate from college. Both are scheduled to earn degrees in April: Woodall in sociology, Taylor in social sciences.

They left behind troubled childhoods to attend schools away from home, the Brooklyn-born Woodall moving to Paterson, N.J., and attending St. Anthony in Jersey City, N.J., and Taylor from Greenburgh, N.Y., to play at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Md.

Woodall had to redshirt in 2008-09 following a knee injury. He started 15 games over the next two seasons, then missed 11 games as a junior with an abdominal injury. Nonetheless, he became one of seven players in school history to record 1,000 points (1,063) and 500 assists (561) in his career, and leads the Panthers in scoring (11.5), assists (5.1) and steals (1.38) this season.

“He's developed into a great leader,” Taylor said. “How much he loves the game, you can see it in the way he plays. ... It's a testament to how far he's come.”

A power forward moved to the post, Taylor never lived up to his billing. Expected to replace All-American DeJuan Blair, Taylor instead spent two seasons behind Gary McGhee. Taylor started 20 games as a junior, averaging 5.8 points and 4.9 rebounds, but is now backing up 7-foot freshman Steven Adams.

“I know a lot of people wouldn't be able to handle being a McDonald's All-American coming in and expecting everything out of him, but I think he's handled it great,” Woodall said.

“He's always handled himself with class and never made it out to be that it was anyone else's fault or he was playing out of position. He's one of those guys who works hard and leaves it on the floor every night.”

Taylor said he never paid attention to the hype, nor does he complain about the way his career has played out. His 5.1-point and 4.0-rebound averages this season are reflective of his career numbers.

“I know I'm a good player. I just came in and did what I had to do for my team,” Taylor said. “I never looked at it as me being better than anybody else because I'm a McDonald's All-American or anything like that. I had to come in and work hard, and that's what I was able to do.”

Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is inspired that Woodall and Taylor are playing their best basketball at the end of their careers. Woodall scored a season-high 25 points against St. John's at Madison Square Garden last Sunday, and Taylor is coming off perhaps the most complete game of his career: 12 points and 10 rebounds against USF on Wednesday.

“Those two guys, they've been a big part of a lot of wins,” Dixon said. “I've just been really happy for them because of how well they're both playing. That's something that you hope to see. It usually doesn't always work out like that, but these two guys are playing really good basketball on both the offensive and defensive end.

“They've been unselfish all the way through. Now people are recognizing how good of players they've been.”

Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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