Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
HERSHEY — After big moments on the court, Mihjae Hayes looks to the sky.
It's where she knows her brother AJ and her sister Ojanae Tamia Thompson are looking down and watching her and it's how she acknowledges their continued presence in her life. So, there was no more fitting place for the basketball to be than mid-air so Hayes had to look up as she leapt to bring it down for her sixth steal of Saturday's state championship game.
To Hayes, it was as good as pulling down the trophy as the Neumann-Goretti senior capped her career with a brilliant 32-point effort leading the Saints past Freedom 55-49 to win the PIAA Class 3A title.
Mihjae Hayes (above) tastes her gold medal after helping Neumann-Goretti to the 2022 PIAA Class 3A championship. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)
"Honestly, I felt like I really did have the trophy in that moment," Hayes said. "I just felt like I had it. I had the steal, they fouled me and I knew I was going to go knock those two free throws down.
"I was so happy, I was speechless basically, I'm a state champ. I kept looking at my brother and my sister up there like 'this is them,' and I know they're so proud of me."
The little guard that could led the little team that could to its fifth state title but just its first since 2018. Hayes shot 11-of-19, scoring the Saints' first six points and their last 15 and accounted for all but two of N-G's points in the fourth quarter.
Freedom Area, which had upset Pittsburgh-area power North Catholic to reach Hershey, proved a worthy adversary. The Bulldogs played up to their nickname, with senior point guard Renae Mohrbacher accounting for 10 of her team's 14 first quarter points as Freedom built a 14-11 lead after eight minutes.
Neither team played a particularly clean game, with both sides turning the ball over 20 times but even with Hayes hitting her only cold spell of the game in the second quarter, the Saints held it together as they have all throughout a tumultuous season. Brooke Barnes hit a second-chance three off a dish from Hayes that turned a one-point deficit into a 22-19 lead and the Saints would lead by a point at the break.
"I knew when it got back out to her that it was going in," Saints coach Andrea Peterson said. "She was bound to hit one for us."
Amirah Hackney had an excellent game in a supporting role for Neumann-Goretti with 11 points and eight rebounds that included two huge 3-pointers in the third quarter, the second putting the Saints in front 30-29 just 13 seconds after Freedom had taken the lead back on Shaye Bailey's steal and layup.
Bailey, a sophomore guard who led Freedom with 21 points, scored on a runout after a Mohrbacher steal to tie the game 32-32 as the Bulldogs refused to go away. It would the Saints' other senior, D'Ayzha Atkinson, who came through late in the third to set the table for the finish.
"We've been through so much, we're so small and everyone doubted us since Day One but we stayed together with the nine players we have," Atkinson said. "What was important was staying together and having 'heart over height.' They were a good team, we had to stay together, apply some pressure, stay out of our heads and pick each other up."
Neumann-Goretti's girls celebrate their 2022 PIAA Class 3A championship title. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)
Atkinson, the team's tallest player who played the whole season out of position at forward, had nine points and 10 rebounds in her final game with the Saints. Of those 10 boards, eight came on the offensive end and none was bigger than the one that led to the second-chance hoop she scored with 1:54 left in the third, putting N-G in front for good.
"I try to get a certain amount of rebounds even though I'm playing out of position, but I was going to do whatever I could for my team," Atkinson said. "I just wanted to get the job done. It was a tough task, but I proved myself."
Hayes grabbed an offensive rebound in the final seconds of the third quarter then ended the frame with a buzzer-beater that left her again looking upward while letting out a yell. She had played every second of the game to that point but nothing was more important to her than the next eight minutes.
She'd already shouldered so much, losing two siblings in six months and leading an undersized, under-experienced team through a compact gauntlet of games, so fighting through some tired legs was just another challenge to overcome.
"It was either now or never," Hayes said. "This is my last game, I got to give everything I can even if I'm tired. I had to fight through adversity and I kept encouraging my teammates like 'this is a team effort, I need y'all.' Of course, I was tired playing the whole game so I needed Carryn (Easley) and Amya (Scott) to step up but on my end, I just said 'Mahj, give everything you can give.'"
Hayes started the fourth by passing out of a double team to get Atkinson an open jumper that her fellow senior connected on for a 40-36 lead.
"It does make it rewarding and it's a lot to have sink in at the same time," Atkinson said. "We've been through so much together. We made a lot of mistakes but we fought through those mistakes and those challenges we faced and came out on top as the underdogs."
Freedom cut it to two when Cadence Gorajewski scored off a fantastic pass by Mohrbacher, who closed her career with a 17-point effort and six assists.
The Saints nearly threw the ball away with five minutes left, but Scott was able to recover then found Hayes in the left corner. Wide open on the catch, Hayes let it go, drilling the three to put her at 20 points and her team in front 43-38 then pumping a fist before looking up as the Saints called a timeout.
Her eyes would keep drifting up as the fourth quarter continued, again after her clinching steal and one last time as the rest of the Saints mobbed her in front of their bench at the final buzzer.
"I felt them throughout the whole game," Hayes said of her brother and sister. "Even when I made mistakes, I replayed the stuff they would say when they were here. My sister used to always say 'go Mini-Me,' so if I made a mistake, I told myself 'Mahj, you gotta get it together and do this for them.
"They're my motivation, I kept saying 'I gotta do this for them, it's my last game,' so that's what I did."
After hitting the three, Hayes scored again on a drive by splitting a pair of defenders and going high off the glass. With 3:07 left, the 5-foot-3 senior drove on her left hand, slalomed through defenders and contorted another tough hoop in for a 47-39 lead.
The final basket of her high school career was textbook Hayes, the senior sprinting past the first line of defense, stepping past the last defender back and flipping a lefty shot off glass for an eight-point lead with two minutes to play.
"We had to be faster than everybody else this season because we were short, but we did it, we put all the pieces together," Hayes said. "We didn't let height define us, it's always 'heart over height,' we believed in ourselves and believed in each other and that's what got us here."
Peterson coached the Saints to four straight crowns from 2015-18 and said each time is different. There was something about this team, from its small roster to its lack of size and all the way to the enormous heart it had that made this title feel a little more rewarding.
"When you see the smiles at the end of the game, especially Mahj pointing up to her brother and sister, losing them five months apart, it's tremendous for her to finish a game like this and go out a state champ," Peterson said.
Freedom got within 51-47 in the final minute before Hayes, who went 6-of-6 at the stripe in the fourth, closed it out with two freebies, that final steal and two more at the line.
Lifting the trophy, which was almost as big as she is, finally broke Hayes' stoic demeanor and the senior couldn't stop beaming as she hauled it around with her as the Saints started their celebration. Gripping it a little tighter, she took another look skyward for her brother and sister, their goal accomplished together.
"I just kept smiling, I think that's when it finally hit, I have the trophy now and I'm finally a state champion," Hayes said. "I kept telling them 'I need y'all,' and they showed up for me so we went and got it."
Neumann-Goretti: 11 | 11 | 16 | 17 || 55
Freedom Area: 14 | 7 | 13 | 15 || 49
Neumann-Goretti: Mihjae Hayes 32, Amirah Hackney 11, D'Ayzha Atkinson 9, Brooke Barnes 3
Freedom Area: Shaye Bailey 21, Renae Mohrbacher 17, Julia Mohrbacher 7, Olivia Evans 7, Cadence Gorajewski