Hayes, Huskies face Irish in tonight's Final Four

UConn's women's basketball players take a lap around the court at the beginning of practice Saturday in Denver. The Huskies, competing in their fifth straight Final Four, will take on Big East foe Notre Dame in the national semifinals at 6:30 p.m. today. It is a rematch of last year's semifinal, won by Notre Dame.
UConn's women's basketball players take a lap around the court at the beginning of practice Saturday in Denver. The Huskies, competing in their fifth straight Final Four, will take on Big East foe Notre Dame in the national semifinals at 6:30 p.m. today. It is a rematch of last year's semifinal, won by Notre Dame. Eric Gay/AP Photo

Denver - It was after a WNBA game last summer that an impromptu UConn revival meeting happened in the bar area of Geno's Fastbreak, the hip eatery at Mohegan Sun. It was a Sun-Storm game, which delivered Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Kalana Greene, Tina Charles, Jessica Moore and Renee Montgomery, among others.

The conversation flowed, much like the euphoric nectar, ping-ponging to this and that before the subject arose of UConn's loss to Notre Dame in the Final Four a few months earlier. And while the term "blame assessment" would be too strong, let's just say that some of the alums present made it quite clear that Tiffany Hayes' performance in that game was unbecoming of a veteran UConn Husky.

Was it fair? Maybe not. But this is a program where the lineage is as impressive as its winning percentage. Thou shalt not tick off the lineage, apparently.

"Well," associate head coach Chris Dailey was saying Saturday at Pepsi Center, site of the Final Four, "I appreciate their support. But it's easy to point fingers when you're not here every day. They could have easily pointed a finger at the coaches, too. We could have done things differently."

But it was, nonetheless, a regrettable, forgettable night for Hayes, whose four points in 33 minutes fortified the belief for some that Hayes' surname should be "Haze" in big games.

So now it's three days short of a year later, a groundhog day of sorts. It's the Final Four again, Notre Dame again (6:30 p.m., ESPN). This would be redemption's stage. It would make for quite a story, Hayes the protagonist in an allegory of persistence.

Hayes' career is a fascinating study. When UConn successfully recruited her, coach Geno Auriemma cracked Hayes was "Kalana, only good." Nobody really knew much about Hayes in the early days with the shadows of Montgomery, Charles and Maya Moore.

"When Tiffany got here," Dailey said, "she was able to be just part of something. She never had to learn any hard lessons. We had Tina and Maya. By junior year, more was expected. That loss exposed her. It had an impact on her."

It's not the worst news, especially if you support the theory of Kathy Auriemma, Geno's wife, who believes that suffering is the key to UConn's success.

"There hasn't been one championship team here that hasn't suffered," she said in 2007, the night LSU destroyed UConn in the Elite Eight.

Kathy Auriemma meant this: All the national championship teams endured bitter disappointment in the NCAA tournament before hanging the banner.

Just ask Greene. She was a post-Taurasi recruit who arrived here bearing relentless expectations. So did Montgomery and later, Charles. There were painful losses in Bridgeport, Fresno and Tampa that ended seasons.

"It wasn't easy," Greene said after UConn's win over Kentucky last week. "We struggled when we were expected to win. Tiffany was different in that she joined in to what was already going on. Then all of a sudden comes last year when it was a shift on to her. It's a big burden."

UConn fans, ever forgiving, get to know the players through what they read and see. Hayes, unlike many in the aforementioned lineage, keeps enough walls around her, preventing warm, fuzzy stories about her.

"She's not an easy kid to get to know," Dailey said.

Dailey said later that the best part of this story has been Hayes' response. She scored 22 points in the Elite Eight last week, drawing multiple hosannas, not to mention the tournament's Most Outstanding Player honor.

"Tiffany has grown to handle things better," Dailey said.

Hayes, UConn's lone senior, learned Saturday that teammate Bria Hartley was named to the Women's Basketball Coaches Association All-America team. Hayes could just as easily have been selected.

But if nothing else, Hayes has learned that at UConn, it's about banners, not honors. This could be her last game tonight on redemption's stage. Stay tuned. Could be a fascinating watch.

m.dimauro@theday.com

UConn senior Tiffany Hayes, right, leaps into the arms of teammate Bria Hartley after Hartley hit a 3-pointer during the second half of the Kingston Regional final against Kentucky last week. Hayes was Most Outstanding Player in Kingston and will play in her fourth straight Final Four.
UConn senior Tiffany Hayes, right, leaps into the arms of teammate Bria Hartley after Hartley hit a 3-pointer during the second half of the Kingston Regional final against Kentucky last week. Hayes was Most Outstanding Player in Kingston and will play in her fourth straight Final Four. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
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