It didn't take long for Tiffany Hayes to make an impression.
After moving from Lakeland to Winter Haven (Fla.) prior to her freshman year, Hayes arrived at her first basketball tryout as a "long, lanky, barely 100-pound" freshman, recalls Blue Devils coach LeDawn Gibson.
Despite her youthful frame, Hayes made the varsity thanks to her obvious natural talent, joining a Winter Haven squad that had reached the state finals the year before. But she found herself coming off the bench the first few games in favor of more experienced returnees.
That all changed when Winter Haven took on IMG Academy early that season. Gibson inserted Hayes into the game in the opening minutes and told her to do her thing.
"She just went berserk," Gibson says. "Tiffany Hayes has been starting every game ever since."
In that time, she has led the Blue Devils to three consecutive state championship games, winning a pair of titles. She's garnered All-State honors every season and was named Class 5A Player of the Year in 2006-07. And just days after winning her second state crown last winter, she became the first member of the Class of 2008 to commit to college basketball powerhouse UConn.
No doubt Huskies coach Geno Auriemma was impressed with the lefty guard/forward's size (5-foot-11), stroke and handle. Her 18 points per game last season on a team with two other All-State players probably stood out, too.
But those are just the obvious things. What Hayes brings to the table goes beyond the tangible. She can play positions one through five for Gibson, creating mismatches with her size against smaller defenders and with her speed against taller ones. A gritty defender, she's also an incredibly smart player to boot.
"Her basketball IQ is so high," says Gibson. "She watches you do something and she can do it."
As a sophomore, Hayes was asked to step up her work on the boards after Gibson lost two of her top rebounders from the previous season. Hayes obliged, grabbing 10.2 rebounds per game to lead the team.
When Gibson needed scoring last year, Hayes upped her average more than five points per game while still registering 10.6 boards and 3.4 assists per contest. And this season, with longtime Winter Haven floor general Amber Smith away at Kentucky, Hayes will be asked to run the point for the first time in her prep career. No worries.
"Before high school, that's all I played," she says. "I used to be real short. It's pretty natural to me."
Hayes' willingness to step in and do whatever her team needs is one of the reasons she's so valued by Gibson. She developed that win-at-all-costs attitude early in her career. Tiffany's mother, Jenny, was a basketball star at Kathleen (Lakeland, Fla.) and Polk Community College before going on to coach at both Kathleen and Lake Gibson. She never pushed Tiffany into basketball and didn't even know her daughter was any good until she heard it from her son, Jerron, when Tiffany was in middle school.
From that point forward, Hayes practiced and played with club teams her mother coached. She routinely played on teams with girls three and four years older. To justify her spot, Hayes' mother was hard on her.
"I can remember one of my practices I had them doing suicides, and she was crying by the end.
I told her, 'If you ever cry in my practice again I will pull you off the team,'" says Jenny, who later told her daughter: "You can't just be good. You have to be better than everyone."
Tiffany took that directive to heart. This past summer, she was better than everyone in the country according to HoopGurlz.com, which called her the best player at USA Basketball's Youth Development Festival. She was also named MVP of the Nike Nationals and Basketball on the Bayou tournaments, starring for AAU team Essence.
"She plays hard on both ends of the floor," says Gibson. "She thrives on defense and rebounding. Scoring is secondary to her. Tiffany could probably average 30 points per game if she wanted to, but she's so unselfish."
And then there's her attitude. "She's always upbeat," says Gibson. "She takes somebody to the hole with a smile. She's just always smiling. It's not in a cocky manner, she just has fun doing what she does."
But don't interpret Hayes' light-hearted attitude as a sign of weakness. She doesn't let anything stand in her way on the hardwood. Even when she had the flu and was running a temperature of 102 degrees during regionals last year, Hayes never considered sitting out. After losing in the state finals the year before, nothing was going to keep her off the floor. "I knew my team was counting on me, and I didn't want to let them down," she says. "I was just determined to win that game." Hayes dropped 29 points in the regional finals and added 27 more in the state semis with Auriemma in the crowd, proving to her future coach that the bigger the stage, the better she performs.
In a game against national power Collins Hill (Suwanee, Ga.) last season, Hayes went up against UConn-bound Maya Moore, who was rated the nation's No. 1 player in the Class of 2007 by RISE. The Blue Devils weren't given much of a chance, but thanks to Hayes they forced the game into overtime before running out of steam.
"People were saying we were going to get blown out," says Gibson. "Tiffany loves to step up to challenges." After this season, the challenge for Hayes will be getting minutes on a loaded UConn team that also boasts a commitment from Elena Delle Donne, the nation's No. 1 player in the Class of 2008. But if Hayes is supposed to be intimidated, she didn't get the memo.
"I'm looking forward to having the best four years of college that anyone ever had," she says, "and I'm looking forward to getting a national championship under my belt."