Graham Woodward was a prolific scorer at Edina (Minn.) High School, a sharpshooter who could hit from long range and a gifted ball handler who could pull up in the lane or finish at the rim. That lethal combination dazzled opponents as Woodward set the Hornets’ single-game scoring record with 46 points and finished his career as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,804.
But Pat Dorsey, his coach at Edina, still marvels at a hustle play Woodward made his freshman year as much as any of his scoring outbursts.
It was Jan. 2010, back when Woodward was just a “tiny dude” — he was 5-foot-8 at best, Dorsey said with a chuckle — who hadn’t yet cracked the varsity rotation. Edina trailed Willmar High School in the final minute and needed a defensive stop. A shot went up, Woodward disappeared into the paint among players standing 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-8 and somehow the smallest player on the floor emerged from the pile with the ball.
“Not only did he rebound the defensive rebound, he made a couple of moves, made a couple plays and pulled up and made a 3-pointer off the dribble and helped us win that particular game,” Dorsey said. “It was a crunch-time moment, and it was a big-time play as a freshman.
“I recognized him as the best player on the floor at that moment, and right there, I got really excited that this kid is pretty special.”
Woodward is now a 6-foot freshman guard for Penn State, carving out a role for the Nittany Lions by doing the little things and coming to work everyday at practice.
Woodward has started the last three games for PSU, averaging 5.3 points and 23.3 minutes per game while helping the Lions win three straight Big Ten games. Woodward and Penn State (12-10, 3-6) will look to win their fourth straight when they take on No. 9 Michigan State (19-3, 8-1) at the Breslin Center on Thursday at 9 p.m.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said Woodward’s presence in the lineup gives the Lions another 3-point shooter on the court and frees up leading scorers D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier to attack from the wings. But Chambers stresses Woodward earned the opportunity to start through his consistency at practice.
“I give that kid a lot of credit,” Chambers said. “He didn’t get a ton of minutes in the nonconference, really spot minutes here and there, and he just kept working.”
Woodward did not play in the Big Ten opener against Michigan State, and he averaged just 2.7 minutes in Penn State’s next three games against Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana.
The freshman then saw 21 minutes and scored six points against Michigan and followed it up with six points in 22 minutes against Purdue before starting the last three games.
All because he kept working.
“That’s something that I really took to heart and came in not trying to make excuses and doing what I do,” Woodward said. “And that’s just working my butt off the full practice
It’s an approach he said was instilled in him from a young age. His father emphasized staying mentally tough to overcome adversity, and Woodward took pride in his effort and hustle.
“I’ve always had that within me,” Woodward said. “I felt like nothing’s been given to me.”
After his breakout game as a freshman at Edina, Dorsey quickly learned the Hornets would win more with Woodward on the court. In Woodward’s last three years in high school, Dorsey said he trusted his guard to handle a wide range of responsibilities he never asked of another player in 21 years coaching.
“I asked him to guard their best player, I asked him to be our leading scorer, I asked him to be our leader and captain, I asked him to shake hands with the crowd after the game just to kind of be the ambassador of Edina High School,” Dorsey said. “And he did all of those roles as a champion. There were an awful lot of things.”
Woodward was never overwhelmed by the pressure, Dorsey said — something he showedin his breakout performance against Ohio State when he scored 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting in 35 minutes.
Dorsey caught the highlights of Penn State’s upset victory over the Buckeyes on the Big Ten Network that night, and he was struck by Woodward’s lone assist at the end of regulation.
There was Woodward, dribbling to his left to hand it off to D.J. Newbill before setting the screen to give his teammate a wide-open look to tie the game and force overtime. It’s the same type of winning play he saw Woodward make time and again at Edina.
Four years later, Dorsey still hasn’t figured out how Woodward came away with the rebound against Willmar. “That would be the secret of Graham,” he said with a laugh. Woodward recalls the play with a smile and offers some insight into the secret behind his success — a mentality that’s served him well since Chambers inserted him into the starting lineup.
“You can’t play with fear, you can never play with fear because if you do, things aren’t going to go your way, and bad things will happen,” Woodward said. “So just that positive mindset and whenever your number’s called, you got to be ready.”