Monday, March 19, 2012

'Bittersweet': Hobbs grad Taylor's collegiate career comes to a close

Clayton Jones/News-Sun
Hobbs grad and Vanderbilt senior Jeffery Taylor prior to
Saturday's game against Wisconsin at The Pit.
  With his hands on the back of his head, Hobbs graduate Jeffery Taylor stood solemn near his Vanderbilt bench watching Wisconsin celebrate moving on to the Sweet 16.
  Taylor’s collegiate career had come to a close after Wisconsin’s Jared Berggren tipped Vanderbilt’s inbound pass with 1.9 seconds left and time ran out with the Commodores losing 60-57 in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday at The Pit.
  It’s a drastic difference to the way Taylor’s high school career ended at The Pit when Taylor and his Eagle teammates stormed up The Pit ramp with the 2008 Class 5A state championship trophy after beating Clovis for Hobbs’ 16th state championship. I remember following the Eagle players up the ramp to the locker room that day March 15, 2008, as they shouted and hollered in celebration.
  Taylor’s walk up the ramp Saturday, however, was a somber one.
  “It was a bittersweet experience,” Taylor said. “I was hoping to get the same kind of ending I got last time I was here. It was really nice to be able to come back and play in front of New Mexico fans and friends and family that I haven’t gotten an opportunity to play in front of for four years.
  “But this wasn’t the outcome we were looking for.”
  There is no doubt, Taylor struggled early in the loss – going scoreless in the first half and not ever getting into the rhythm of the game after picking up a pair of quick fouls and playing spot time for the last 12 minutes of the half.
  Taylor came out strong in the second half as he drained a pull-up jumper near the elbow on Vanderbilt’s first possession to give the Commodores a 33-32 lead with 19:39 left in the game.
  Taylor shook a defender to the ground off the dribble and stepped back for a 3-pointer with 14:15 remaining and had a few other key plays, but it wasn’t enough as Vanderbilt came up short. Taylor finished with nine points on 4-for-12 shooting (including 1-for-5 from beyond the arc).
  Though I’m sure the loss stings now and will do so for some time, when Taylor looks back at this experience, he’ll probably remember it as an enjoyable one.
  From the moment Taylor stepped into The Pit on Wednesday, the 6-foot-7 Swedish import through Hobbs was a magnet to the media with his ties to New Mexico (even with Hobbs a solid five hours away from Albuquerque).
  I remember the then shy, soft-spoken Taylor when he came to Hobbs prior to his junior season in the summer of 2006. In any interview we did, he said little because he’s just a person of few words plus he rarely spoke English in Sweden and it took time for him to adjust to speaking the language on a consistent basis.
  By his senior year in high school he was much more comfortable with the language and us (the media).
  Fast forward four years to now and he’s as smooth as anybody in front of a microphone, though I think the constant media attention this week may have gotten old to him since he’s just not someone who looks for the spotlight.
  For the family, friends and fans who’ve been able to watch him in person for these two games, it’s been a treat – including for myself. We all remember the high-flying Taylor who relied on athleticism and pure talent to become Hobbs’ leading scorer after just two seasons and lead the Eagles to the 2008 state championship.
  Taylor has grown so much as a player since then. What was once a slow, inaccurate jump shot now flows smoothly with a quick release. His ball handling has improved tremendously. Combine that with his nearly unmatched physical abilities and status as an elite defender, he’ll likely be a first round pick in June’s NBA Draft.
  Saturday was the end of this chapter of Taylor’s life titled, “The College Years.”
  But with a great head on his shoulders, a strong work ethic, world-class athleticism, a great skill set and a humbleness to him that will keep him on the right path, the basketball portion of his life story is far from over.

(This column appears in Sunday's edition of the Hobbs News-Sun)