Each of Georgia’s three seniors has a redemption story to tell. They all arrived at different times and have experienced their share of tribulations on the hardwood.
In the end, Yante Maten, Juwan Parker and Pape Diatta are set to appear in their final regular-season basketball when Georgia hosts Texas A&M on Wednesday night.
The senior trio will likely be emotional, to some degree, during the Senior Night pre-game ceremony, which will take place 15 minutes before the game’s 8:30 p.m. tip. And just as much, so will the Georgia coaching staff.
“Each had to deal with their share of adversity,” Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. “We’ll certainly have some emotions across the table, from them to their teammates to our staff. They’ve been really good kids.”
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One of Georgia’s best ever
Maten will end his career top-five in the Georgia history books in points scored, rebounds and blocked shots. As a three-star recruit out of Pontiac, Michigan, in Georgia’s class of 2014, that wasn’t something anyone could have predicted.
But Fox said he always knew Maten would have the opportunity to be an All-SEC caliber player. As a senior, Maten is averaging 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. He has stated a strong case to earn the SEC's Player of the Year honor.
But Maten endured a tough stretch near the end of last season. With Georgia needing to reel off some wins to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble, Maten sprained his knee in a game against Kentucky at Stegeman Coliseum. That injury put him out for the remainder of the regular season. Maten wasn’t 100 percent in last year's SEC Tournament, although he gave it his best shot in a win over Tennessee and a loss to Kentucky.
“At one point I was just down on myself because I felt I could be helping the team and I wasn’t able to,” Maten said. “When you’re not able to help team physically that’s when you have to help people mentally. That’s what I tried to do.”
Whether Georgia makes a late run at this year’s NCAA Tournament or not, Maten will go down as one of the greatest players to ever suit up in Stegeman Coliseum. He is No. 2 all-time in program history in scoring with 1,797 career points, No. 3 in blocks with 190 and No. 5 in rebounds with 850.
His favorite memory came as a sophomore when Georgia hosted an NIT game against Belmont. Maten got the ball on a fast break and drove the ball the entire way before leaping for a thunderous dunk.
In the end, Maten is most thankful for the time he has spent with his teammates during his four years on campus.
“I just love the companionship and the brotherhood we ended up making through these years,” Maten said.
While Maten has accomplished a lot as a basketball player, it’s his presence away from the game that has truly impressed Fox.
“Yante is as genuine as he presents himself,” Fox said. “His faith is very important to him. He’s really been a great example to everybody in how he lives and carries himself. I’m not sure there’s a better young person on this campus, and there are a lot of great kids on this campus.”
Bouncing back twice
How many players could tear two Achilles tendons and end up a better player?
Parker has defied the odds by bouncing back from each injury with a pair of quality seasons. As a sophomore during the 2014-15 season, Parker tore his left Achilles with the coaching staff knowing he needed surgery to repair it.
But with the Bulldogs in the NCAA Tournament hunt, Parker wanted to push through, if possible, in a game at Auburn. Sure enough, Georgia needed Parker to provide some minutes. Parker was able to gut out the pain and bring down five rebounds in 15 minutes.
Two games later, Parker gave it a go again against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament but was only able to play six minutes. He was unable to play in the NCAA Tournament loss to Michigan State.
After surgery, the injury lingered longer than expected, which forced Parker to redshirt the following season. As a redshirt junior a year ago, Parker averaged 9.3 points per game. But again, late in the year, Parker suffered a partial tear to his right Achilles.
Another surgery would arise.
“Things don’t always happen like you want them to happen on the court or off the court,” Parker said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things I learned here. You have to get up and keep pushing. You have to get up and keep fighting.”
This season, Parker has been one of Georgia’s top three offensive options. He has averaged 8.8 points per game and saw his 3-point shooting percentage rise considerably. A 20 percent or less 3-point shooter in his three previous seasons, Parker has made 38.1 percent of his 3-pointers this year.
Fox couldn't decide between the more impressive feat – playing on a torn Achilles or bouncing back from two torn Achilles tendons.
“I don’t know if it’s the comebacks that are impressive or the fact he played through so much of it,” Fox said. “I remember the first time when we knew he had to have surgery, and he delayed it. He said, ‘If I can help us win one game to get in the NCAA Tournament, that’s what I’m going to do.’”
Parker, however, believes returning from two surgically-repaired tears is the greater feat than gutting out the pain of the first injury.
“Maybe I’m tooting my own horn but I think I came back better both times,” Parker said. “I think that’s an attribute to some toughness, and some mental toughness.”
Long distance addition
It was late in the 2016 recruiting cycle and Georgia had an open scholarship to give.
Fox liked what he saw out of a junior college prospect at the College of Southern Idaho, who actually ended up there by way of Gainesville, Florida. Diatta immigrated to the Sunshine State from Dakar, Senegal, to finish high school and play basketball.
Diatta was a role player who appeared in all but one game a year ago. A versatile player on offense, Diatta was ready to play a similar role this season. But in the fall, Diatta suffered a significant ankle injury that prevented him from playing much this year until recently.
“It was tough,” Diatta said. “But as the year went by I learned to play through it.”
Diatta has only been able to appear in 12 of Georgia’s 28 games. However, as the pain has become more bearable, Diatta has participated in six of Georgia’s last seven games. Albeit in a 72-57 loss to Mississippi State, Diatta did his part to keep Georgia in the game with four 3-pointers for 12 points.
Georgia was able to seal the deal in Diatta’s recruitment by having assistant coach Jonas Hayes travel to Senegal to meet his mother. While Diatta came to America, his immediate family stayed behind. It was important to Fox and the coaching staff to make sure Diatta's mother knew he was in good hands at Georgia.
Upon moving to Florida, Diatta lived with Gainesville residents Art and Sandy Nangle, who served as his host family. The Nangles will be in Athens Wednesday night when Diatta is honored alongside Maten and Parker.
Being a part of this senior class with Maten and Parker has meant a lot to Diatta.
“They’re like brothers,” he said.