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March 2, 2013More than six years ago, back when he still went by "Travon," Tray Woodall committed to play for Jamie Dixon at Pitt.
Now Woodall and fellow senior Dante Taylor will get to play in front of Pitt fans one more time at the Petersen Events Center when Pitt hosts Villanova in the home finale Sunday.
"It's definitely a day to look forward to," Woodall said Thursday in anticipation of Sunday's Senior Day. "But I look at it as another chance to play another game and get another victory.
"It'll probably be an emotional day but definitely a day to look forward to."
Fittingly, both Taylor and Woodall each enters his final home game not far removed from a season-best performance. Woodall leads the team with 11.5 points per game after scoring a season-high 25 points in a win at St. John's last weekend. And Taylor notched a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the Panthers' victory against South Florida Wednesday.
"I've been waiting to have a game like that," said Taylor, who is averaging 5.1 points and 4 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game. "I just try to come out and continue to do what I've been doing these past few weeks: just keep playing hard, playing good and just have everything carry over and coming together."
It certainly makes life easier for Dixon when his two senior leaders are setting the pace for the rest of the team.
"Those two guys have been a big part of a lot of wins. Sometimes you come into your senior year [and struggle] but these guys are playing their best basketball," Dixon said. "They practice that same way and I think they've made our guys play better."
While Sunday will, of course, come with the usual conventions of a ceremony to honor seniors - framed jerseys, a speech from Dixon, maybe a video montage - the festivities will be even more special for Woodall and Taylor than most.
For both New York natives, Sunday will be the first and only time their immediately family sees them play at Petersen Events Center. Taylor's mother and other family members will be in attendance, as will Woodall's mother, uncle and six or seven other relatives including his sisters and nieces.
"It's a great feeling and I know it's going to be a great atmosphere," said Woodall, who mentioned after the South Florida game Wednesday that he won't be surprised if he sheds some tears.
Taylor, who is also Woodall's roommate, is eager to play in front of his family as well.
"I know they're going to be really excited and I just can't wait for them to come watch."
For Dixon, it all comes back to how proud he is of his two eldest statesmen, and not just for this season but throughout their Pitt careers, as each has had to overcome a slew of injuries and competition since coming to Pitt.
"I've just been really happy for them because of how well they're both playing. They're both playing good basketball right now," Dixon said. "It doesn't always work out that way, but these guys are playing really good basketball both on the offensive and defensive end."
Good enough, in Taylor's case, to earn a spot in the starting lineup in his final game in Oakland?
"I guess you always think about that as far as seniors, but I haven't really considered it [yet]," Dixon said Thursday. "He's going to play so many minutes, he's started games before, I don't know that that makes a huge difference.
"I know Dante would want to do what's best for the team, I'm pretty sure of that."
Sure enough, Taylor, who started 20 games last season but none this year while backing up freshman Steven Adams, took the approach his coach expected.
"To me, personally, it really doesn't matter if I start or not if I get the start, it'd be great, but if I don't, I'm not going to be mad about it," said Taylor, who many expected would be a star immediately after being a McDonald's All-American selection in high school.
It's not lost on his coach that the 6-foot-9 social sciences major never quite lived up to the expectations of most - "maybe he didn't score as much as some people wanted him to," Dixon said - but none of that matters now.
"He's always been a great kid, an important part of what we're doing and an important part of our success," said Dixon. "It's nice to see a guy in his senior year playing well down the stretch and people recognizing that."
As for Woodall, a gritty guard who entered the program the year before Taylor and redshirted his first season, the matchup with Villanova isn't just a day to honor the seniors. It's also another stop on the road to what he hopes will be a memorable postseason.
The last remaining member of Pitt's 2008-2009 Elite Eight team and a steady contributor for the four seasons since, Woodall still reflects back on what he learned from that run and uses it as a measuring stick for what he still wants to accomplish. In fact, it's the first thing that comes to his mind when he looks back at the biggest moments of his time as a Panther.
"Being a part of the Pitt family my freshman year and seeing how those guys worked and getting to the Elite Eight," Woodall said, "that's something I always carry with me and relay to my teammates. And I definitely want to surpass that."