Hawks' Carroll, Cowboys' Graham are unsung but not unappreciated

Junior forwards deliver pair of clutch performances en route to regional final

Ncaa Regional

East Rutherford

March 27, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Pat Carroll and Joey Graham don't get a fraction of the attention that some of their teammates on the Saint Joseph's and Oklahoma State basketball teams receive, but make no mistake that the junior forwards will have an impact on tonight's NCAA tournament East Rutherford Regional final.

If not for Carroll's 17 points and eight rebounds in his team's 84-80 victory over No. 4 seed Wake Forest on Thursday night at Continental Airlines Arena, the top-seeded Hawks would be back home in Philadelphia, being second-guessed about how good their season had been.

If not for the three baskets Graham scored in a little over two minutes of the second half in his team's 63-51 victory earlier in the night that helped break up a close game against third-seeded Pittsburgh, the No. 2 seeded Cowboys might have watched their season end, too.

As a result of what the 6-foot-5 Carroll, considered by many to be his team's best shooter, and 6-7 Graham, thought to be the most athletic player on an athletic team, did in their respective Sweet 16 games, Saint Joseph's (30-1) and Oklahoma State (30-3) will play for a chance to go to the Final Four next week in San Antonio.

"Pat Carroll has been coming up big for us," said junior guard Delonte West, who came up large himself by scoring 24 points against the Demon Deacons, including the game-sealing free throws with six seconds remaining. "We like to call him the silent assassin. You concentrate so much on us, he hits you with another one."

Said All-America point guard Jameer Nelson, who also scored 24 points: "I think once I got the chance to penetrate, they were leaving him right open. For him, it's like a layup. I think once he gets rolling, it's like he's unguardable, like he's just standing out there on the three-point line and just shooting his shot."

There was a time this season when the only thing that was falling for Carroll was his confidence. After starting the season by making three of five three-pointers and four of six shots overall in a 73-66 upset of Gonzaga in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden, Carroll went into a slump that lasted nearly two months.

Carroll kept his starting job but saw some of his minutes go to freshman Chet Stachitas.

"I wasn't worried how much time I'm going to get here," Carroll said yesterday. "I knew it's upon myself, I've got to step up my game and play better. As long as we got the wins, everything was going well for me."

Said Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli: "The hard thing for Pat is that I knew how hard Pat had worked all summer. I had seen that he was playing better basketball, but he wasn't shooting the ball better."

Carroll worked hard to get out of a slump in which he missed 30 of 40 three-pointers in an eight-game stretch. He spent extra time at the school's field house taking hundreds of shots before and after practice. He got all kinds of advice, but listened mostly to what his older brother Matt, a former Notre Dame captain now with the San Antonio Spurs, told him.

After being cut by a couple of NBA teams last fall, the older brother returned to the family's home outside Philadelphia and began working with his younger brother.

"A lot of people were encouraging me when I was missing my shots, but when I worked out with him, his words seemed to stick with me more than other people," said Pat Carroll. "I can trust him, because he's been with me all my life. He kept encouraging me that it would come, and it did."

With a couple of three-pointers in the second half of an 81-73 win at Xavier on Jan. 17, Carroll emerged from his slump. He hit 22 of 33 threes over a five-game stretch to regain the confidence in himself, as well as from his teammates and Martelli. He is currently ranked eighth in Division I in three-point shooting at 46.9 percent and averages 10.2 points a game.

Graham is the third option - and sometimes the fourth - on an Oklahoma State team that features senior guard Tony Allen and junior guard John Lucas, and is often left unguarded. And there are times when he is simply unstoppable.

Take the night Graham scored 36 points against Nebraska, the most points by a Cowboy player since Randy Rutherford scored 45 during Oklahoma State's last Final Four season in 1994-95. Or the dunk he made over Wayne Simien of Kansas, or another he made in the team's coming-of-age win at Texas.

"A lot of times a lot of teams put a lot of emphasis on John and Tony, it kind of leaves me with the opportunity for some open looks," Graham said. "At that point in time [against Pitt], I just tried to take advantage of the situation."

Graham, who transferred two years ago to Oklahoma State from Central Florida with his twin brother, Stevie, made an off-balance jumper in the lane to start a 20-9 run to end the game against the Panthers. He finished with nine points and six rebounds.

"When John was on the bench and Tony was struggling for a little bit, somebody had to step up and make a few buckets," said Graham, who is averaging 12.1 points and 4.9 rebounds. "That's what's so special about this team. You can't focus on one person. We have a lot of options to go to."

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