Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
WARMINSTER — Mihjae Hayes felt the Imhotep defender on her hip as she drove to the basket, didn’t mind the contact as she deftly laid the ball up with her left hand, absorbing the blow, falling to the ground as the ball dropped through the hoop, the whistle sounding simultaneously.
Then, not for the first time Friday evening and not for the last, the Neumann-Goretti senior guard let out a yell, her fired-up teammates coming over to help her up, all of them feeling the same thing: no way the Saints were losing this game.
“I was basically just saying, give everything that you can right now,” Hayes said. “I was like, I’ve got to carry my team, I’ve got to lead; how I go is how they go. Once I got the and-one, that fired me up like we’ve got this, we’re going to Hershey.”
Mihjae Hayes (above) and Neumann-Goretti advanced to the PIAA 3A championship game on Friday night by beating Imhotep Charter. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Hayes’ final scream of the evening came as the final seconds ticked off Neumann-Goretti’s 46-28 win in the PIAA Class 3A semifinal game at Archbishop Wood, the 5-foot-3 guard defiantly spiking the ball as a couple hundred Neumann-Goretti fans on hand cheered their loudest, celebrating a program that was back in the state title game for the first time in four years.
“Honestly, it’s like a feeling that I can’t really explain,” Hayes said afterwards. “My whole three years at Neumann, I’ve never been to Hershey, so just for me, carrying this team on my back and us being so small and being able to accomplish this, with everybody doubting us from the beginning of the year, it’s just a wonderful feeling. I’m speechless.”
Those sound like bragging words from Hayes, but she’s just being honest.
There’s no doubt these Saints are hers from the top down, head coach Andrea Peterson finding ways to turn the answers to numerous questions back to Hayes and her contributions, both on and off the court. The dynamic senior guard didn’t need to score the 33 she did in the District 12 title game, which also saw Neumann-Goretti down Imhotep, but she still led her team with 16 points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals.
“Even when she’s not scoring, though, the reason why I (talk about) her is she facilitates and she dictates,” Peterson said. “When she wants it, like she does every game, that kid’s special; all I have to say is Mihjae Hayes.”
Hayes certainly was the difference-maker in the game-breaking third quarter, which saw Neumann-Goretti enter with a 19-14 advantage and exit up 33-20, Hayes scoring 12 points in the frame as the Saints closed with an 8-0 advantage, including that and-one layup (though Hayes missed the foul shot), the eventual outcome fairly clear even with eight minutes to play.
Neumann-Goretti’s defense was suffocating, forcing 24 Imhotep turnovers and holding the Panthers to 10-of-37 (27%) from the floor.
Early on, when Hayes hadn’t locked in on her scoring touch, the Saints were getting offensive production from junior guard Amirah Hackney, who hit a pair of first-half 3-pointers, scoring eight points to lead all scorers before the break. Hackney and senior D’Ayzha Atkinson (nine points, six rebounds, six steals), the only other upperclassmen in the rotation, have been providing key supplementary scoring during the Saints’ run; Atkinson had eight of her points during the fourth quarter, the Saints only expanding their lead over the final eight minutes.
“The first game, I had 33 points, so I knew they were going to adjust and face-guard or box-and-one me,” Hayes said, “so I just kept telling my teammates, this is where y’all have to step up and show them that y’all can do it too. They think if they get me out of the game, they got us…we just had to stay locked in.”
Amirah Hackney (above) had eight first-half points to keep Neumann-Goretti afloat before Hayes took over. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“She means a lot to us,” Hackney said of Hayes. “She went through some things and we just pick each other up and do what we’ve got to do to move forward.”
Last year was a tragic one for Hayes, who lost her brother and sister to gun violence in the span of six months, creating two wounds that will never truly heal. The Saints are playing this season for their senior leader and her siblings, supporting Hayes whenever and however they can.
“I accomplished so much already for them, I know if they both (were) here they’d be so excited for me,” Hayes said. “I just always think in the back of my head, I just do this for my brother and my sister, and that’s what makes me go so hard. I tell my teammates, if they’re not doing this for anybody, do it for my brother and sister.
“I need this, I want it so bad [...] I think about them all the time, even when I’m playing, when I make a mistake, I’m like I’ve got to fix it, I’ve got to get this for them.”
“I felt like I made them proud, I made them proud for getting here, I made them proud for being able to go to Hershey,” she continued. “I know they’re excited, they’re up there watching me and stuff. I read text messages and stuff from my sister, older games, she’d be like ‘go Mini-Me, you’re doing good.’”
Also impressing for the Saints have been a pair of freshmen guards, Carryn Easley and Amya Scott. Both chipped in five points in the win; Easley adding two assists and steals apiece, Scott with four rebounds, four steals and two dimes. Most impressively was the way the pair handled themselves against the Imhotep defense, rarely turning the ball over (N-G had 13 team turnovers) and making smart decisions in such a big-game atmosphere.
“They’re going to be special,” Peterson said. “Our biggest thing for them is not turning the ball over. Earlier in the year they did, but again, you have a freshman playing in the best league in the country, and then you come into a crowd like this, they’re able to handle this pressure. We play the best non-league schedule for this opportunity, for this moment right here.”
In the championship game, Neumann-Goretti will play District 7 runner-up Freedom Area (22-5), which upset the team it lost to in the district final, North Catholic, 46-39 on Friday evening. The two will meet at the GIANT Center in Hershey, 12 PM on Saturday.
With a week to go in their season, the Saints will have plenty of time to rest up and prepare — and enjoy the weather, too.
I told them don’t worry about basketball, take a couple days, enjoy it with your family, and we’ll go for the state championship,” Peterson said. “Everyone counted us out except for us. We’re going to give them the weekend, it’s 75 degrees out, let them be kids again, it’s all mental and we’ll get back at it.”
Neumann-Goretti: 12 | 7 | 14 | 13 || 46
Imhotep Charter: 4 | 10 | 6 | 8 || 28
Neumann-Goretti: 17-49 FG (4-18 3PT), 8-10 FT
Imhotep Charter: 10-37 FG (1-9 3PT), 7-16 FT
Neumann-Goretti: Mihjae Hayes 16, D’Ayzha Atkinson 9, Amirah Hackney 8, Amya Scott 5, Carryn Easley 5, Brooke Barnes 3