- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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KINGSTON, R.I. -- Forget about Maya Moore, Tina Charles or Renee Montgomery coming to the rescue. For a good stretch of Tuesday's regional final between Connecticut and Kentucky, as whistles blew and fouls piled up, it didn't look like Tiffany Hayes was going to be able to count on much help from even those teammates with eligibility remaining.
In a moment feared by many fans whose expectations begin and end with championships, a career defined largely by those Hayes played alongside rested squarely on the senior's shoulders.
And those aren't big shoulders.
Hayes had watched as her team lost on senior night in Storrs, the end of a home winning streak that predated her arrival at the school, the ultimate indignity on an evening that was supposed to be her shining moment. She watched with the rest of the starters from the bench as the final minutes ticked off the clock in an embarrassing loss at home against Notre Dame to end the regular season and her team's title hopes. She watched as a freshman teammate, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, claimed most outstanding player honors when Connecticut redeemed itself with a Big East tournament championship.
She didn't watch as the regional championship trophy was held aloft Tuesday night. She was the one holding it.
She didn't watch as teammates mobbed the regional's most outstanding player. She was the one being mobbed.
Hayes is going back to the Final Four for the fourth time after No. 1 seed Connecticut's 80-65 win against second-seeded Kentucky, the Huskies surviving a fight for their basketball life for 30 minutes before pulling away.
After scoring 22 points and coming up with big play after big play, she leaves a whole lot of questions behind to stay in Rhode Island.
"I am a senior, and I am supposed to be playing like this all of the time," said Hayes, whose Huskies face Notre Dame, for the fourth time this season, in Sunday's Final Four (ESPN/ESPN3, 6:30 p.m. ET). "For me to do it in this game, it means a lot more. I am glad that my teammates were there to help. We all did our part, and like I said, I am just glad to be back in the Final Four."
In the days leading up to the game, Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma talked about this round, one game from the place every team wants to go, being a stage on which a grand soliloquy is required.
Hayes delivered on cue.
She scored points when seemingly every other player in a Connecticut uniform was in foul trouble, driving again and again and absorbing contact that would make a boxer blush. She tied for the team lead with eight rebounds, paying a heavy price for one late in the second half when, knocked off balance, she landed back first, head smacking court. She came out of the game briefly after that one, Mosqueda-Lewis taking the free throws in her stead, but a minute later she was back at it, grabbing another offensive rebound as the Huskies began to gradually extend their lead.
Redshirt junior Heather Buck is one of only two players, along with fellow redshirt junior Caroline Doty, who has been with Hayes from the beginning at Connecticut. What she saw Tuesday over 40 minutes was four years on fast forward.
"I feel like tonight was almost like her whole career in a game," Buck said. "She started off really strong and did really well. And then she had a little rough patch, and she kind of got into a point where -- I don't know if anyone else can tell, but we can always tell when she's kind of struggling. She had a few minutes where she was kind of struggling, and she pulled it together and came back and finished the game and did exactly everything that we needed her to do.
"She's such a strong person. Taking that hit and going down hard the way she did and coming back and finishing even stronger than she was before, I think that all of that is really who she is. She's strong.
"She's not to be underestimated."
Hayes was always the other player for Connecticut, sometimes the other other player. She played a supporting role to Charles, Moore and Montgomery when the Huskies went undefeated in 2008-09. She played alongside Charles and Moore when the team did the same thing a season later. And she still had Moore around last season as the Huskies marched back to the Final Four. But with the season on the line in Indianapolis -- even as Moore turned in one of the most spectacular halves of basketball in a career full of them in the second half of a semifinal against Notre Dame -- Hayes couldn't provide the missing piece. She finished with just four points in 33 minutes and watched Moore put away her uniform for the final time.
It wasn't a performance that inspired a lot of confidence in her ability to take the lead chair this season. It was a performance that inspired her.
"I think that propelled her," associate coach Chris Dailey said. "She worked really hard over the summer, and she's worked really hard this year -- harder than she's ever worked. And I think she was willing and made a true effort to do a lot more things for us this year. She's our best kid at penetrating and kicking, she's become a much better rebounder. Working on her pull-up, her midrange game, she's done that. She's knocked in 3s. And I think she has grown in that she's limited her turnovers, limited her bad shots and really just worked hard at it.
"Had we won last year, I'm not sure the transition and the progress would be that great."
Hayes will never paint the same physical picture as the stars she played alongside for so many seasons. There's not enough of her to command the same space as Moore occupied. She doesn't run a team the way Montgomery did or change the shape of the game for opponents the way Charles did. The ball still comes up dangerously high on dribbles or occasionally loses its way when Hayes goes behind her back. She still finds herself in the middle of the lane with nowhere to go at times and causes Auriemma to turn pirouettes of frustration on the sideline. She bears a striking resemblance at times to European soccer stars, arms thrown wide as she crashes theatrically to the court after contact.
But there was little embellishing the punishment she took time and again Tuesday, 11 trips to the line, in addition to the two Mosqueda-Lewis completed, earned the hard way.
Contact sometimes provided Hayes with an easy way out early in her career. Tuesday, it earned her a trip to Denver.
"She hit her head really hard tonight on the floor," said Doty, Hayes' closest friend on the team. "That she's able to bounce right back up and come in and play unbelievable even after that, I don't know that you could say the same thing about her freshman year. I think that would have kind of zoned her out or separated her freshman year. But now, her ability to overcome struggles, to focus on what's needed, to not get upset when shots aren't going in, and just knowing that rebounds and hustle plays and taking care of the ball are keys to the game and can make you be the player of the tournament.
"Just to see her grow and have fun with it and smile and be part of the team, it's just an unbelievable feeling. I'm so happy for her."
Hayes has earned plenty of national accolades over the course of her career, a total probably matched only in volume, in fact, by the local skepticism about her ability to be the best player in a Connecticut uniform in a game that truly mattered. People here will say she earned that skepticism. They also have to say she answered it.
"Outstanding player," Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Had a great career here at Connecticut and it's still going."
Still going because Tiffany Hayes led Connecticut to the Final Four.
That's a sentence she earned.