March 3, 2021 

‘That girl is one of a kind’: Anastasia Hayes dominating at Middle Tennessee

How her winding journey led her to greatness

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Middle Tennessee guard Anastasia Hayes (1) drives against Western Kentucky at E.A. Diddle Arena during a doubleheader in late January. Photo courtesy of Middle Tennessee Athletics.

There are certain intrinsic qualities in athletes who dominate their respective sport for any considerable amount of time; it’s built into their DNA and when it’s nurtured properly, that dominance is sustained. Such is the case with Middle Tennessee junior guard Anastasia Hayes.

What the 5’7 Hayes has displayed on the court, first at the University of Tennessee and now under head coach Rick Insell at Middle Tennessee, cannot be taught and is developed with time. If you ask anyone around Hayes, they’ll continuously praise her instinctual skill set, willingness to be aggressive, and intelligence that has led her to be the NCAA women’s basketball’s leading scorer, averaging 27.8 points per game. If you ask Hayes, she’ll humbly give glory to God and everyone in her circle before then shining the light on herself; and it’s an awfully bright light. 

But it’s those qualities everyone, including Hayes, sees in her that set her apart. Sometimes it’s a simple as a code embedded into one’s DNA. Other times, it’s that paired with a winding, whirling journey testing one’s resolve and commitment. Here, it seems to be both.

“The quality of being able to finish in a game, wanting the basketball in your hands. I see more running away from the basketball in my 46 years of coaching that I see coming to get the basketball,” Insell said last month to a group of media gathered on Zoom. “She’s one of those young ladies that will come and get the basketball. You gotta want to make that play; not everybody wants to make that play. A lot of people talk about making that play, but they don’t make it.”

Hayes’ journey to this point in her collegiate career was full of the twists and turns she employs on the hardwood, weaving through defenders; a forced transition to a mid-major university proved successful. Perhaps it’s a testament to her resolve and tested but diligent faith; perhaps it’s all above her, part of a plan that came together with, at one point, no clear paved road. Or perhaps is a unique mixture of all.

Hayes first attended Tennessee in 2017, averaging a (now career-low) 24.3 minutes per game. She was the first in her class to commit to the university and entered the Volunteers program ranked sixth by and ninth by ESPN HoopGurlz. Despite Tennessee’s then-depleted team with its leading scorer Diamond DeShields heading to the WNBA (and now with the Chicago Sky), Alexa Middleton transferring to Iowa State, and Te’a Cooper transferring to South Carolina (and now with the Los Angeles Sparks), Hayes wasn’t a starter. But her role off the bench was pivotal to the Volunteers’ success.

The team finished 25-8 for its best record since the 2014-15 season (when the Volunteers ended the year 30-6 with an Elite Eight appearance). Hayes finished in the 70th percentile for average points per game (9.3) and field goals made per game (2.6). Her efforts garnered the SEC’s Sixth Woman of the Year award. Hayes played such an integral role, especially on defense, that she was considered a starter in the coaching staff’s eyes. After an accomplished campaign, Hayes was dismissed from the Volunteers program due to “a violation of team rules.” She later worked out at Middle Tennessee, sealing her fate as a Blue Raider. It was as if she was always meant to be there, and she was warmly welcomed. 

The respect between Hayes and Insell, who is in his 15th season coaching at the Conference USA school, is obvious. Hayes was in the midst of a hot streak and led the nation in the most 20-plus point games (22) dating back to last season. Her resume was growing; Hayes was named to the Naismith Trophy’s Midseason Team for the 2021 Women’s Player of the Year award. This came after she was named to the Dawn Staley Award Late Season Watch List as one of the top guards nationally. She’s also on the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year midseason list. None of this, by the way, is shocking, at least not to Insell or the people who know Hayes best.

“Anastasia is a very gifted young lady and what she has done on the court has not been a surprise to myself, our coaching staff,” Insell said. “We have taken our offenses and we’ve got them directed toward the guard position, much like we have in the past with the post in the 2 and the 3 guard, and she’s taken it and ran with it.

“What we’re doing with that system is creating a lot of excitement. And I’m very proud of what she’s done, very proud of the attitude that she’s had on the court and off the court. We’re looking for great things the rest of this year.”

It’s not just Hayes’ raw talent. Her commitment to the game has paid dividends. She’s more than just the tough defender from Tennessee. She’s dedicated time to working on specific parts of her game — including her 3-point shooting, which has increased season after season and now sits at 26.2%—in an effort to be a more well-rounded, confident player. After all, this is where Hayes’ drive was nurtured: in the gym. At a young age, it was workouts with her father, Arnett, in gyms around Murfreesboro, Tennessee. She already had the unique markers of greatness or at least the drive; what followed was continued work. And it’s that same work that Hayes leans heavily into in crucial moments on the court.

Hayes, affectionately called Annie, joins a very elite group of basketball players from Middle Tennessee. It can’t be happenstance that she’s the third player under Insell to lead the nation in scoring, but she is the first at her position. Hayes joins Amber Holt and two-time WNBA champion Alysha Clark; both reached the height of national prominence as forwards. All three have those unique qualities that separate them from their teammates and opponents.

“Annie is able to use her quickness and speed and she gets a lot of open court layups. And [it’s] not that she snowbirds, because she’s averaging somewhere around five or six rebounds a game,” Insell said. “But she is so quick with that first step and getting out that, when she gets out, our players now have a tendency to pick her up in open court, and she’s nearly impossible to guard in open court.

“It’s something that you’re born with; it’s not something that — maybe a lot of coaches take credit for coaching one to do that, I don’t think you can. I think you have to be born with that skill set. Amber was born with it and Anastasia is also born with it.”

Hayes’ strong basketball roots play into this. She started in middle school and almost quickly became a local legend along with her four siblings, including sisters Aislynn, Alasia, and Acadia and brother Arnett Jr. Aislynn Hayes joined Anastasia Hayes at Middle Tennessee. Both are skilled players in their own right, but, again, Aislynn is quick to give Anastasia her deserved praise.

“Anytime the game got tight or we were down, it was just a different motive for her,” Aislynn Hayes told The Next. “It’s like that for all of us; all my siblings, we have a different motive. If we’re down, we gotta step it up but her motive is 10 times different from my motive; that girl is one of a kind.”

Middle Tennessee guards Anastasia Hayes (back) and Aislynn Hayes (front) pictured together during practice at Murphy Center. Photo courtesy of Middle Tennessee Athletics.

The Hayes family has celebrated great highs together. The sisters helped defy the odds in high school to win the Division I Class AAA state championship at Riverdale High School; Anastasia was a sophomore at the time and Aislynn was a freshman. Every step of Anastasia’s career has been marked with support—first from her family and now the coaching staff and her teammates at Middle Tennessee—tireless work and then success. Each of those qualities is a marker in Anastasia herself. It’s seen on and off the court, but when it’s on the court, it creates magic; it’s like when we call something effortless but the effort it took was exhausting. When that’s the case — and when the work was done to prepare for specific moments — it almost is effortless because the hardest part is done.

“It’s always been like that. My dad helped me become this tough player, who I am today. I’ve worked hard enough to know when it’s time to get a bucket, it’s time,” Anastasia said. “The work has been put in. So just do all you can on the court and make that bucket when you need it. So the work has been put in.”

This season has been the most productive for Anastasia for a myriad of reasons. One thing, in particular, is the ease she’s able to have on the court. It’s opened up her game. Anastasia is averaging 46.5% shooting from the field, 5.6 total rebounds, five assists, and 2.8 steals, all of which are at or near the top percentile nationally. The confidence that comes with being as prepared as Anastasia is has allowed her to unlock parts of her game that can allow for the continued success at the next level, although—and admittedly—there’s still plenty of work Anastasia needs to do to get there. 

“I may start off with zero points and end up with however many points, but this year, my main thing is just slowing down and taking control and letting the game come to me,” Anastasia said. “I’ve been reading the defense; reading the defense, reading the game, studying the game, getting a better IQ of the game, and this year that has helped me tremendously having confidence in myself. My coach has the most confidence in me, and that gives me a lot of confidence; just having the support that I have has been really helpful. My coaches have helped me grow to the person I am today and I’m very, very thankful for that.”

But even Anastasia’s efforts alone won’t be enough to bring Middle Tennessee to prominence; it’ll be a collective effort in which Anastasia has the biggest role. The program has been absent from the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament for the last three seasons. The team is currently 13-6 with two games left before the 2021 C-USA Championship. It’ll take the work of the team, one Anastasia happily and humbly contributes to. That, paired with her continued confidence and inspiration, are some of the most fundamental parts of success at this level; Anastasia has a good roadmap to success at the next level, too.

“I feel like that’s why I can do the things that I do. I try to give my all in every possession, no matter what, and me being this size, that doesn’t matter to me,” Anastasia said. “It doesn’t matter how small or big you are. I feel like if you work hard, and you show your talents, and you play hard, every possession, I feel like there’s nothing that you can’t do.”

Written by Alexis Mansanarez

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