501 Life Magazine | ‘Strong’ Graves leads Lady Wildcats
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‘Strong’ Graves leads Lady Wildcats

Harding Academy’s Alden Graves is a member of this year’s 501 Basketball Team, sponsored by Conway Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, Conway Regional Health System and First Security Bank. (Mike Kemp photo)

by Levi Gilbert

Alden Graves knows what it feels like to have the game she loves suddenly ripped away from her, and she’s not taking it for granted. Her junior season ended suddenly in the first round of the 3A state playoffs when she tore her ACL. The Lady Wildcats fell in the next round.

For Graves, the basketball court has always held a tinge of loss, but also great love.

“I have been playing basketball since I was 4 years old,” she said. “What prompted me most to play basketball were the older male influences in my life, especially my dad, having such a love for it, and even for all sports. It caused me to want to play because they loved it and were taking the time to teach me about the game and were constantly pushing me to be the best I could be.”

Graves lost her brother when she was 8, and then her father passed away just under two years later. The loss of the influencers who led her to love basketball have made that love for the game bittersweet at times. “Those trials have taught me to be strong and to be the person and player I am today,” she said.

“Alden has dealt with some really hard things in her life,” said Rusty Garner, Lady Wildcats head coach. “She refuses to let those determine her attitude. She has a pretty good gauge on what really matters and tries to focus herself and her classmates and teammates on those things.”

Graves, a senior shooting guard for the Lady Wildcats, was selected to this year’s 501 Basketball Team — 34 players representing the best the 501 has to offer both on and off the court. The team is sponsored by Conway Ortho and Sports Medicine, Conway Regional Health System and First Security Bank. Graves was nominated by Garner.

“Alden is one of the most skilled shooters in school history,” Garner wrote in his nomination. “She is the best free throw shooter by percentage in many years and has developed into a trustworthy ball handler and scorer. Alden wants her teammates to be successful, regardless of what that means for her individually. She has the same excitement in a win where she didn’t score a point as she does in a win where she scored 25. Her energy and enthusiasm are contagious.”

Last year in her junior campaign, Graves averaged 10.3 points per game, making 40 percent of her 3-point attempts. She has made more than 200 3-pointers in her career and scored more than 1,000 points. She’s also an 80 percent free throw shooter.

Graves’ value for the Lady Wildcats extends beyond just game day.

“As a coach, you want players you can trust in the classroom, away from school and on the floor,” Garner said. “We trust Alden. She will lead our team in word and in deed. Alden works the Micah Rine Wildcat Legacy Race each year honoring the late Micah Rine, a former Lady Wildcat. She is a ‘big sister’ to Pre-K kids on our campus.

“She is just a terrific young lady that we love immensely, and we will miss her tremendously both on and off the floor when she graduates.”

After winning a 3A regional last season but exiting early in the state tournament due to injury, Graves is on a mission to finish her Harding Academy career with no doubts.

“My personal goal for this season, and really every season, is to bring exactly what the team needs to the table in that specific moment,” Graves said. “It’s very important to me to be aware of my role on the court, and then go do that and be the best I can at that for my teammates so that we may succeed. Our team strives to work as hard as we can and be the best players and people we can be. We strive to be the best teammates on and off the court, and that will relay to how we perform from game to game.”

Graves and the Lady Wildcats (5-0) play at cross-town rival Riverview at 6 p.m. Friday.