TAYLORSVILLE — When Tia Hay was a senior in high school listening to the recruiting pitches of college coaches, she was open to just about anything but playing in Utah.
“I was getting recruited by Utah State,” she said laughing, “and I said, ‘Mum, I do not want to go to Utah. It’s cold, the mountains, snow — not a fan at all.’ I didn’t want to go to Utah at all, so it’s kind of funny how it worked out.”
Hay’s college basketball story is still being written, but it turned out that a school in Utah, albeit a different one, needed her just as much as she needed it.
Born and raised in Australia, Hay was a junior in high school when she decided to “explore my American side.” That led her to move to California, where her biological father’s family lived.
The reunion didn’t go as planned, but the pursuit of basketball and an education exceeded her expectations.
“Back in Australia I wasn’t really a good student,” the Salt Lake Community College sophomore point guard said. “I didn’t really go to class that much. That was another reason I wanted to come to America, to get a new start.”
She attended a private school, which she said gave her the “kick” she needed to put her education first. “That definitely helped me with the two years here,” she said of attending SLCC. “I’m organized and a better student. (SLCC) has helped move me forward.”
But her path to SLCC was not a straight line, either.
She signed with Colorado State, but then when the school had issues honoring her scholarship offer, it connected her with Bruins head coach Betsy Specketer.
“I spoke to Speck on the phone for about an hour, and two days after speaking to her, I was headed to Utah for the first time,” she said. “Literally four days after they told me, I was in Utah.”
Hay, who averages 21 points per game, said she wasn’t scared, but she was anxious about how this junior college in Utah might fit her needs — or how she might fit in with the women already in the program.
“I hadn’t met the coaches,” she said. “I hadn’t met any of the players, and I hadn’t been to the campus to see what the school was like. It was just kind of random. It turned out to be one of the best decisions.”
Specketer said she didn’t hestitate to offer Hay a spot on her program because she trusted the coaches at CSU. She was a different kind of point guard, however, than the Bruins have relied on in recent seasons.
“She’s a scoring point guard, and in our system we have typically been more of a setup type of player,” Specketer said. “A lot of what we do is for the people who score, the point guard gets it to them. Whereas with her, you know it starts and often ends with her, but other people do some things in between.”
Hay said she had some “adjusting” to do as a freshman. Specketer admits she had to learn to let her point guard capitalize on her quickness and athleticism.
“I’ve really kind of had to let her go and do what she does,” Specketer said. “She gets to the rim really, really well. She’s sneaky quick, and she’s developed into a bit better shooting point guard and a 3-point shooter. But it’s just her athleticism in the open floor that she’s just unmatched in that way.”
While Hay has gained toughness and a defensive focus from Specketer, the point guard has helped the Bruins be more versatile and adaptable.
This year that became a critical strength for the team.
We lost three players — two of them key starters — in the first few weeks of the season. The Bruins lost leading rebounder Nani Tonga, who was averaging 10 rebounds per game, and Ashley Scoggin, a freshman who was leading the team in 3-pointers. A third player was lost to an ACL injury, and Specketer wondered how the team would pursue any of the goals they set in the preseason.
“I was mad,” she said. “I was like, ‘What in the world?!’ I mean, I’ve never had that happen. So what (this team) has done is really remarkable. They’ve been really resilient. Talk about roles and kids stepping up and just doing some things that we probably didn’t think individually they could do at the start of the year. I always thought this team could be pretty good, but then we lost those three, and I kind of questioned whether or not we could meet those year-end goals. And they met them.”
Led by Hay, the team finished with a 26-5 record, including the victory that gave Specketer her 500th win as a college coach.
They capped the regular season, which included a 9-0 record on the road, by winning the Region 18 tournament with a 79-70 win over College of Southern Idaho. Next on the list of goals is competing for a national title.
They start with Asa College (New York) in Lubbock, Texas, Monday at 11 a.m.MDT.
Hay said this year’s team is young and sometimes immature. In addition to Hay, the Bruins rely on Miki'ala Maio, who averages nearly 12 points per game, and Kimauri Toia, who averages 9.8 points per game.
“But I also feel like because we’re young, we have the energy and the hunger that we want to play well,” said Hay, who is mulling several offers from colleges in California. “We want to impress people, and we just work well as a team.”
Their goal, Hay said, “Is to get as far as we can, and just have fun and enjoy it. The main thing is just have fun, and don’t be scared.”
Advice that’s easier to take from someone like Hay, who has built her career on taking risks and embracing opportunities.