Tiffany Hayes lived comfortably in the backdrop of All-Americans and talented upperclassmen during her first two seasons at UConn. She did not have to provide the Huskies with a steady flow of offense. In fact, the contributions she made over the first 78 games of her career were a bonus for the Huskies.
This season Maya Moore is the lone All-American remaining on a team that is lined with youth. This has forced Hayes into the spotlight and into a leadership role. And she also has emerged as a key to UConn’s ultimate success, which has taken some time for her to get accustomed to.
“I know I have to come ready to play every night, especially against the really, really good teams and good players,’’ Hayes said. “From now on there’s not going to be team that’s not up to par. So I just know that I have to come with it every night.’’
Hayes, a 5-foot-10 junior guard, provided another example of how important she is to No. 2 UConn 19-1, 8-0 Big East) in Wednesday’s win at Rutgers. The Huskies, who will meet Cincinnati on the road today (2 p.m.; CPTV), struggled offensively in the first half. Hayes had five points on 2-of-5 shooting.
But as Hayes heated up in the second half so, too, did UConn. She scored 13 points (4-of-5) to help the Huskies win going away.
A key element to Hayes’ growth this season has been her ability to not get lost when she is missing shots. This is something that is a constant work in progress. But the fact that there has been progress is encouraging.
“It’s not hard at all,’’ Hayes said. “You’ve just got to concentrate and just think about winning the game and think about being a team player, thinking about being a leader. And just know that you can do more to contribute than just by making shots. I would say (I’m a changed player). It’s just because I realize now that I can rebound. I can get to the free throw line. I can play help defense. I can do a lot of other things. And I’ve been doing those things kind of lately.’’
Hayes is averaging career-highs of 15.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 30.2 minutes this season. She has a 1.6 assist to turnover ratio and is shooting 45.5 percent from the field.
Hayes is also averaging 17.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 32.4 minutes in seven games against ranked opponents. She has scored at least 20 points in six games after reaching the mark just five times through her first two seasons.
“She’s realizing more how much of an impact that she makes,’’ Moore said. “When she’s aggressive when she’s mindful of she can do anything she wants we’re a completely different team. So I’m glad that she can now see the difference, hopefully. And I can see the difference.’’
There has been a noticeable difference in Hayes since she was a non-factor in the 71-59 loss at Stanford Dec. 30 that ended UConn’s NCAA record 90-game winning streak. She finished with three points on 1-of-9 shooting (1-of-5 3-pointers) in 24 minutes, spending the final 6:20 of the game on the bench.
“Just the fact that I know that if myself or Maya or both of us does not have a good game then it could go another game like Stanford and we don’t want that to happen,’’ Hayes said. “You learn a lot of losing a game like the Stanford game, especially when you’re one of the leaders on the team. So you have take that and you have to learn from it and get better as the year goes on.’’
Hayes has responded by scoring at least 20 points in three of the six games that she played more than the first minute since that loss. And she has done much more than just score. She is averaging 18.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in this stretch.
Hayes scored 21 points in an 84-52 win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden Jan. 12. And she had 29 in an 83-57 win at then-No. 10 North Carolina Jan. 17.
The Huskies have the capability of beating any team in the country when Hayes is playing at a high level. This is a concept she has come to understand and her role is one that she is steadily coming to grips with.
“If she plays the way she played at Madison Square Garden or the way she played at North Carolina, we’re not the same team,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Now you’ve got two people on the floor that can get 30. That’s very, very difficult for the other team to handle. And that’s not even counting if some of the other guys (play well).’’