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Back again - Graham’s focus pays off

Eagles play UNC Greensboro today at 3:30 p.m.

    He came to Georgia Southern as a happy-go-lucky freshman who was often overlooked by opponents centering on former Eagle stars Jean Francois, Terry Williams and Elton Nesbitt.
    But Louis Graham didn’t fly under the radar for long.
    The lean forward adjusted to the college game quickly, bursting onto the Southern Conference scene three years ago by blocking 50 shots — a new GSU single-season record. He also averaged 8.2 points and 6.9 rebounds a game to earn a spot on the league’s all-freshmen team. It was an excellent start to his collegiate career, but the notoriety came with a price the following season.
    “His freshman year he wasn’t the focus of anybody’s scouting report,” said GSU coach Jeff Price, whose team hosts UNC Greensboro at 3:30 p.m. today. “But all of a sudden his sophomore year, he was on the front page.”
    As opponents keyed on him more, Graham said he heaped pressure on himself and stopped enjoying the game. With the self-imposed stress came a loss of focus, something Price and Graham discussed often during Graham’s sophomore year.
    “Are you focused today, Louis?” Price would ask. The coach also encouraged Graham to have more constructive practices and look for ways to improve daily. Price’s efforts paid off.
    “I’m approaching the game with more optimism and being happy and having fun instead of a more business-like approach,” said Graham, now a junior. The West Palm Beach, Fla., native’s performance has benefited from his new outlook. Eleven games into the season, Graham is second on the team with 12.4 points a game and first with an average of 9.5 rebounds and a total of 18 rejections overall.
    Earlier this year, he became GSU’s career blocks leader, and he posted his fourth consecutive double-double in the Eagles’ last game, a 72-60 loss at Clemson on Dec. 19. He has six double-doubles this season and 16 overall.
    The biggest difference between this year and last?
    His focus, said Price.
    “I don’t think he was focusing well at all last year on what he had to do, and he seems a lot more focused this year,” Price said. “He’s gotten to the point where every single day he works hard. We never have to worry about Louis in practice. Now that he’s more mature, there’s not a day that goes by where he doesn’t come ready to practice. His work ethic has been tremendous, and that’s why he’s gotten better.”
    Graham’s teammates enjoy playing with the junior, who says he gets his competitiveness from his mother.
    “It’s a great experience playing with Louis Graham,” junior guard Dwayne Foreman said. “He’s improved a lot since his freshman year, especially with his confidence. He’s getting more involved in the game, and it really helps our team out.”        Along with a much-needed presence in the low-post, Graham brings a swagger to the Eagles.
    “He has an ego, but it’s a good ego, something we really need for this team,” Foreman said. “We know what he’s going to bring to the table at all times.”
    This afternoon Graham will stay busy trying to contain the SoCon’s leading scorer (21.7), rebounder (10.1) and blocker (2.5), UNCG junior forward Kyle Hines.
    “(Hines is) one of very few guys in the league that you have to look at changing your defensive scheme constantly during the game to control him,” Price said. “If you just try to play him the same way the whole game, you can’t stop him. He’s a really, really good player, so we’ll have to be on our toes about how we want to play him throughout the game.”
    But Hines isn’t the only thing on Graham’s mind. Graham said the team talks openly about its desire to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1992. The Eagles advanced to the National Invitation Tournament last year, but they’ve got their eyes on a bigger destination.
    “The monkey is still there,” Graham said. “Once you get the monkey off, it’ll be a sigh of relief, but right now it’s still there. This year’s team has the ability to get over that hump and break that barrier. You can talk about it all day, but you need to get out there and work for it. Nobody is going to give you anything.”
    If the Eagles hope to continue the success of last year’s 20-win season, Graham says they’ll have to work on the details of their game. They’ll also need to play well during the current four-game home stand, which begins against one of the SoCon’s top teams. Graham said he’ll do his part, but he knows his days of being an unmarked man are far behind him.
    “He snuck in here and nobody knew who he was,” Price said. “Now he’s one of the best players in the league. He’s just a great kid, sharp, well-balanced. He’s a good person that everybody likes. He gets along with everybody.”

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.

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