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    Friday, April 19, 2024

    Hayes makes her official return to Connecticut in Sun’s home-opener vs. Mystics

    From left, Rebecca Allen, Natisha Hiedeman and Tiffany Hayes cheer on a teammate before a WNBA preseason game May 10 at Mohegan Sun Arena. Hayes, a 2012 UConn grad, makes her return to Connecticut after 10 seasons playing for the Atlanta Dream. The Sun play their home opener at 1 p.m. Sunday against the Washington Mystics. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Connecticut Sun guard Tiffany Hayes, traded to the team in February, has earned a spot in the team’s starting lineup alongside DeWanna Bonner, whom Hayes played with for CBK Mersin in Turkey. (AJ Mast/AP Photo)

    Mohegan — Tiffany Hayes and DeWanna Bonner were teammates this winter with CBK Mersin, a professional women’s basketball team in Turkey, and Hayes faced a steady recruiting pitch from her friend, Bonner.

    “She pretty much talked me into coming here for two months,” said Hayes, now a member of the Connecticut Sun’s starting lineup along with Bonner. “Just everything. ‘C’mon (No.) 15, we need you.’ Just basically saying that every day.”

    Hayes, a 2012 UConn graduate and two-time national champion with the Huskies, played previously in the WNBA for the Atlanta Dream.

    Hayes, 33, a 5-foot-10 guard, was a second-round draft choice by the Dream, for whom she played 10 seasons. In a breakout season in 2018, Hayes was named All-WNBA first team, finishing sixth in MVP balloting and fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting, averaging 17.2 points per game as she led Atlanta to a berth in the league semifinals.

    Hayes was very seriously considering retirement before Bonner’s salesmanship.

    The Connecticut Sun traded for the right to Hayes on Feb. 9, shipping the No. 6 pick in the WNBA Draft to the Dream in exchange.

    Hayes makes her official return to Connecticut on Sunday when the Sun play their home opener at Mohegan Sun Arena against the Washington Mystics (1 p.m., NBC Sports Boston).

    Both teams are 1-0, with the Sun having opened Friday with a 70-61 win at Indiana and the Mystics beating the New York Liberty 80-64 in Washington.

    “This is her home,” Bonner said last week following a Sun practice of what her pitch was to Hayes. “She went to UConn. She knows Connecticut. I feel like she needed a fresh start, so this is perfect.

    “I’ve been playing with her overseas for two years and she’s a beast. I think a lot of people are going to be surprised, for sure. I feel like she has a lot more to give. I think this year she’s going to have a lot of fun. She can think about retiring later on. That’s one of my good friends.”

    In Hayes, the Sun got a left-handed player quick enough to slash to the basket but one who also shot a career-best 42.9% from 3-point range last year, having connected for 325 3-pointers in her career.

    The signing also came following the departure of head coach Curt Miller and point guard Jasmine Thomas, who traded coasts to join the Los Angeles Sparks, and former MVP Jonquel Jones, now with the Liberty, with Hayes giving the Sun another veteran presence and an easily adaptable, easy-going personality.

    Hayes finished with just five points in her opener with the Sun on Friday, finding herself in foul trouble and playing just 22 minutes, 51 seconds.

    “She’s super-talented. I think she fits here,” Sun first-year head coach Stephanie White said. “She fits a piece that we haven’t had. We haven’t had somebody who can just get to the rim whenever they feel like it. She can, but she also balances that out because she’s a really good 3-point shooter.

    “She’s, I think, an underrated defender and I think she has the ability to be a terrific rebounder from the guard position.”

    Hayes has played 11 straight seasons in the WNBA and overseas with the exception of the 2020 season played in a “bubble” in Bradenton, Florida, for which Hayes opted out.

    She is the Dream’s all-time leading 3-point shooter and their second-leading scorer with 3,828 points.

    “The benefit that Tip has here is that she doesn’t have to shoulder the load,” White said. “She can just be a piece and we’ve got a good, strong veteran core so she doesn’t have to be the one who does everything. She doesn’t have to be the one to tell everybody where to go and what to to do.”

    Said Hayes: “I’m so proud of my career. My people are proud of my career. (Not having) a ring doesn’t define me. What I’ve done in all these 10 years is get better as a player and I helped my team every year that I was on the team. I’m in love with my career, actually.

    “I would like to be done, but I decided to give it another shot. I’m not just going to come in here half doing things just because I considered not playing. I decided to play so I’m going to commit to it. I can’t wait.”

    Sunday’s game is also a return home for Mystics first-year head coach Eric Thibault, who took over for his dad, Mike Thibault. Mike Thibault is the former head coach of the Sun and the WNBA’s all-time wins leader with 379. He coached the Mystics to a WNBA title in 2019 with Eric as his assistant.

    The Mystics were led Friday by Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud with 14 points each and Elena Delle Donne with 13 points, four rebounds, five assists and two steals.

    The Sun will honor six-time WNBA all-star Taj McWilliams-Franklin in a postgame ceremony, placing her No. 11 alongside other Sun legends in the rafters of Mohegan Sun Arena. She joins Margo Dydek, Lindsay Whalen, Katie Douglas, Nykesha Sales and Asjha Jones in having her number retired.

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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