Mihjae Hayes appeared exhausted. And for good reason.
Minutes earlier, the Neumann-Goretti senior had just played every second of the Saints’ 55-49 PIAA Class 3A slugfest victory over Freedom Area High School at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. – the program’s fifth title under coach Andrea Peterson.
As she stood outside the locker room following a jubilant team celebration, Hayes reflected on her team’s journey – and that of her own.
Though she chose not to dwell on losing two siblings six months apart last year, the gleam in Hayes’ eyes – as well as her pointing to the sky at the end of the game – professed her profound familial love.
“I’m proud of my teammates,” said Hayes. “Thank you to Coach Peterson. I’m just happy. They have just as much heart as I do.”
Few, if any, had as much heart as Hayes this season.
A first-team All-Catholic who garnered serious consideration as league Most Valuable Player, Hayes’ average output consisted of 24 points, seven rebounds, two assists and five steals.
Her final performance in a Neumann-Goretti uniform was epic. Despite being hounded by Freedom Area’s defenders, Hayes completed an astounding 32-point, six-rebound, six-steal, two-assist effort by scoring 15 of the Saints’ 17 points during the pivotal fourth quarter, including a perfect six-of-six shooting from the foul line over the final 52 seconds.
True to form, Hayes wasn’t looking for special plaudits.
“I can’t be tired,” said Hayes. “I fight through adversity. Just get the job done. I just have to give everything I can. Playing all the games is a hard test, but I knew I had to do it.
“I got heart. I wanted this so bad. This is what I love to do. I just gotta have fun at the end of the day.”
Describing much of N-G’s game as “fun” might be stretch. Before hitting five of their last nine shots in the fourth quarter, the Saints had shot a subpar 36 percent from the floor.
Neumann-Goretti finished with a way-too-many 20 turnovers and a way-too-few six assists, but those blemishes were offset by Hayes, senior D’Ayzha Atkinson (nine points, 10 boards, three steals), junior Amirah Hackney (11 points, eight rebounds, two blocks), and sophomore Brooke Barnes (five rebounds, two steals, last-minute three-pointer that gave the Saints the lead at halftime).
In the end, winning ugly never felt so good.
“We played a nationally ranked non-league schedule for this moment right here,” said Peterson. “You could tell at the end we kind of kept it together and we didn’t fall apart, and I think that’s what makes the difference.
“With what these ladies have endured during the season, I’m talking about off the court – Mihjae losing two siblings; D’Ayzha has lost a few family members … so leading up to this, you have young ladies going through things that are bigger than basketball.”
Peterson paused briefly.
“When you see that smile at the end of the game – especially Mihjae when she pointed up at her brother and her sister – it’s tremendous for her to finish a game like this and go out as a state champ.”
Contact John Knebels at email@example.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.
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