July 1, 2022
In first game, Tiffany Hayes is unstoppable in overtime win
Returning players put on blockbuster performances propelling the Dream to OT victory.
“Me going out there and doing my thing is just a thank you for them coming in and making all those changes and bringing all the players in. Our team is great,” Tiffany Hayes told media following Thursday night’s nail-biting victory over the New York Liberty.
After missing the previous 19 games of this season due to overseas commitments and a right knee injury, Hayes returned to the court against the Liberty and reminded everyone what kind of player she is when leading Atlanta.
Aside from Hayes’ showstopping performance, the Dream tidied loose ends that had been hindering their performance in the three-game losing streak they rode into New York.
Atlanta’s defense was a thing of beauty, with lockdown defending throughout the second and third quarters. The Dream currently sit at third on the defensive rating leaderboard after holding the top spot up until earlier in the week.
Despite some of their recent struggles, the Dream came out tenacious with sustained energy. They clamped down on lethal players and continuously played at a high level to execute the gameplan well.
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The two teams remained neck and neck throughout the first quarter, with New York carrying a slight lead. Early in the second, Atlanta took the lead and held a significant margin through the first three quarters. The Dream’s dominance in that stretch was thanks to their defense paired with newly returned offensive production.
Over the past five games, the Dream have had a combination of injuries and illness from Kristy Wallace, Kia Vaughn, Nia Coffey, Erica Wheeler and Hayes. Four of these players are regular starters, and their absences being patched with hardship signings has been difficult on team chemistry.
All players from that list have made their return in the past two games except Coffey, immediately exhibiting just how much they impact the team. Throughout the second and third quarters, Wallace and Wheeler were dominant on both ends. Vaughn showed leadership and dominance in the paint, while Hayes was everywhere she needed to be.
After an impressive two-quarter stretch from the Dream, the Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu had a few chippy moments with Dream players Aari McDonald and Wallace that lit a fire under New York. The Liberty went on a four-minute, 17-0 run in the fourth to snag the lead.
In the back half of the fourth quarter, the Dream woke up, trailing by just a few points most of the way. Down three with just seven seconds left in regulation, Rhyne Howard inbounded the ball to Wheeler who hit a top-of-the-key three to send the game into overtime.
“Absolutely not,” Wheeler replied postgame after being asked if that was the planned play. “The shot was definitely to go to AD, but as a point guard, it’s time awareness. I looked up, it was 2.3 [seconds left], made a basketball move, and hit the shot.”
As overtime began, Hayes showed everyone just whose basketball game it was. From her back-to-back threes to begin the overtime period, nailing free throws, or buckets under the basket, Hayes could not be stopped. She ended the game with 21 points, nine after regulation.
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The Dream took home the road win, allowing just two Liberty points in overtime for a final score of 92-81. It was a deserving win as the Dream outperformed the Liberty in nearly every statistical category.
Hayes is alongside only three returners to the Dream and is the only player on the current roster to have played in Atlanta for over five years. For a team riddled with change, Hayes has been a constant.
Although her play was new to this year’s team, she has consistently been a force on the court, averaging nearly 15 points last year.
“I’m gonna do whatever my team needs, and one of my goals is to be the best two-way player. So I just tried to the best of my ability to the best,” said Hayes.
It’s clear that the addition of these four important pieces, Hayes noted, has greatly elevated the team. Case in point, the Dream’s loss to New York just a week prior to Thursday’s overtime thriller.
“We got our asses kicked,” head coach Tanisha Wright told media after their June 24 loss.
But it’s more than just a nearly-full roster, Wright and players emphasized.
“We needed to get back to being ourselves. And we feel like, in order for us to win games, we have to be the hardest working, toughest team out there,” Wright said. “And I think tonight we just displayed that at a high, high level.”
The Dream are going to have to turn around and replicate their toughness from last night by playing four of the five best teams in the league in their next four matchups. However, despite losses and daunting obstacles, last night showed that you can’t count out the Dream.