Saturday, April 21, 2018
Sports

Ex-Winter Haven standout Tiffany Hayes, UConn's lone senior, works to uphold Huskies' lofty status

Even in the context of the ridiculous success of the Connecticut women's basketball program, Tiffany Hayes has a high standard for what constitutes a memorable season.

The former Winter Haven standout had collected two national championships and 90 victories with the Huskies before she endured her first loss, at Stanford last season.

Now she is the lone senior on a team that has, well, struggled to an 18-2 record and a No. 3 ranking, taking losses at No. 1 Baylor and now-No. 2 Notre Dame.

If there were ever fears of a UConn dropoff, they were somewhat justified last offseason after the graduation of star Maya Moore, a multiple-times player of the year winner who was the top pick in the WNBA draft and led the Minnesota Lynx to a championship in October.

Coach Geno Auriemma's team remains loaded with elite talent, but with Moore gone, there was at least the perception of vulnerability.

"It definitely got a little bit harder, just because everybody's looking at us as a target, because they think we're weak because we lost the best player in the country," Hayes said Thursday as UConn prepared for today's home game against USF.

"We had to work 10 times harder in the preseason because in everybody's eyes, we were a target."

No one could replace Moore's production, but Hayes, a guard, has continued a steady improvement since her freshman year, emerging as the Huskies' leading scorer, averaging 15.7 points per game. She averaged 8.4 points as a freshman, 10.2 on the second national championship team, 13.7 last year.

Hayes reset a career high with 35 points in a win at Syracuse on Wednesday.

"She is in a really good place right now," Auriemma told the Hartford Courant after the Syracuse game. "Physically and mentally, she feels really good. And (Wednesday) was a perfect example of all the things that she can do on any night.

"This was a 'Here I am, this is what I do, I am a senior' night for her. I hope there are many more games like this before she graduates."

Hayes said her biggest responsibilities to this year's team are as a veteran leader on the court.

"I have to be more of a vocal leader if I don't (also) lead by example," Hayes said. "It's one thing I have to be consistent with in order for this year to end well."

She has the team's best 3-point percentage, 41.9 percent, and she's within one rebound of the team lead in a lineup that has talented freshmen still getting their bearings.

"I think this team is more well-rounded. It's not just one person doing everything," Hayes said. "Different people can step up, and on any given night, anybody can go off and have that great game."

So though this Huskies team has as many losses as Hayes had in her first three seasons, those experiences might make UConn better for the postseason. UConn led Baylor by 11 in the second half of that loss, and the Huskies were up eight on Notre Dame with nine minutes to play.

Hayes said she is focused on helping her team finish her college career the way she started it.

"It's been everything and more. You never come to a school and expect to win, off the bat, two national championships," she said. "It's definitely been a great ride.

"The past 31/2 years have been some of the greatest times of my life. There's definitely more to come, and hopefully this season can end well."

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