Fantasia Hilliard made an indelible impression on Darius Graham when they met for the first time on the basketball court at Sacramento High School.
Graham was a freshman on the boys junior varsity team, and Hilliard was a sophomore transfer on the girls varsity, which sometimes scrimmaged against the boys. At first glance, Graham didn’t think the elfin Hilliard passed the look test.
Then Hilliard dribbled right at Graham.
“I didn’t realize she was left-handed, and she hit me with one of the nastiest crossover dribbles I’ve ever witnessed,” Graham said.
The speedy Hilliard loved the challenge of testing her skills against the speedier and taller Graham.
“We were going at each other a lot, and it was just fun,” she said. “I loved playing with Darius and the other boys.”
Graham and Hilliard could see they had the tenacity and drive needed to thrive in the highly competitive basketball environment at Sac High.
“After that first practice, I told her I respected her game, and she said she respected mine,” Graham said. “We’ve been good friends ever since.”
Hilliard, 5-foot-3, and Graham, 5-10, traveled similar paths – from lightly recruited undersized facilitators overshadowed by higher-profile high school teammates to starting point guards at Sacramento State and UC Davis, the only schools to offer them scholarships.
Hilliard, a senior and four-year starter at Sac State, has set school career records for assists (584) and steals (239). This season, she leads the Hornets in scoring (14.5 points) and minutes (25.5). She also is one of only 12 Sac State players to score 1,000 or more career points.
Graham, a redshirt sophomore in his second year as a starter, has helped the Aggies to a 9-1 record, matching the best 10-game start in the school’s 104-year history. He is second on the team in assists with 31 (124 for his career) and averages 25.5 minutes.
At Sac High, Hilliard played in the shadow of major college recruits Brittany Shine (Florida, Cal), Kyra Dunn (Pittsburgh, Cal, St. John’s) and Erica Barnes (Arizona).
Though she was the Metro Conference Player of the Year as a senior, Hilliard said Sac State, then coached by Jamie Craighead (now at San Jose State), was the only school to offer her a scholarship.
Hilliard is the unquestioned leader of a Hornets team that has won just twice in 11 games playing tough nonconference competition while trying to acclimate nine new players to the up-tempo style of second-year coach Bunky Harkleroad.
“Tay is so valuable to us,” Harkleroad said. “You can’t say enough about her motor. She’s nonstop. We are going to go as far as Tay can take us this season.”
Despite her diminutive stature, Hilliard grew up playing against boys – older brother Bryan is No. 3 on Sac State’s football career rushing list – and still likes to play as if opponents give her no respect.
“To this day, I still see myself as the underdog,” she said. “But I like the role: short with a big heart.”
She has a killer instinct, too.
“When’s she’s playing, you can see the fierceness in her eyes, how competitive she is,” Graham said. “But off the court, she is the nicest, sweetest person. She has a smile on her face, and she has that soft voice.”
The gregarious Graham plays with a similar focus and intensity. Like Hilliard, he was surrounded by stars at Sac High. Major recruits Josiah Turner (Arizona), Trevon Abraham (Rice), 7-footer Robert Garrett (Santa Clara) and 6-8 Will Davis II (UC Irvine) received most of the recruiters’ attention.
Graham’s only scholarship offer came from UC Davis coach Jim Les, the former Kings point guard, who saw a tough, driven player who wasn’t flashy but had leadership capabilities.
“I call him our Indy pace car,” Les said. “He sets the pace for the tempo we want to play. He’s quick; he’s explosive. He makes everyone around him better.”
Aggies senior star Corey Hawkins calls Graham “our energizer bunny,” an unsung defender and the player “who makes our offense go.”
“I don’t think people give him as much credit as he deserves,” Hawkins said. “He’s playing a lot of minutes, always getting pressure (dribbling) up the court and always guards the other team’s quickest guys.”
Graham is so grateful to play for Les and UCD, he hates when he lets down his mentor.
“I’ll run through a wall for Coach Les because he took a big chance on me,” Graham said. “He’s always encouraging me, telling me to watch pro guards like Ty Lawson and Damian Lillard, because he says I’m just as skilled as them.”
Graham’s drive on the court and in the classroom always has impressed Hilliard, one reason he was her high school senior prom date.
“He’s a very nice boy, so respectful,” Hilliard said. “And his dad is like my dad. He’s always on Darius to do his best, just like my dad.”
Though they play for rival schools, they keep in regular contact, giving each other advice and encouragement.
Graham said Hilliard’s motivational texts were comforting last season when he struggled for the injury-plagued Aggies, who won just nine games.
This season, it’s been Graham encouraging Hilliard to keep working hard during Sac State’s slow start.
“I tell her to keep that chip on her shoulder, to be patient with all the new players,” Graham said. “I told her she’s working right now for when conference comes. That’s when you guys will be rolling.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.