Hay’s stateside hoops career comes full circle

Tara Hay came to the United States to get her education and to play collegiate basketball.

Four years after graduating from Marshalltown High School, Hay is on track to get her degree in psychology and her basketball career is reaching unimagined heights.

Hay and the Reinhardt University (Waleska, Ga.) women’s basketball team will be competing in the NAIA Division II National Championship starting Wednesday at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City after the Lady Eagles earned an automatic berth by winning the Appalachian Athletic Conference (AAC) Tournament Feb. 21-23 in Kingsport, Tenn.

Hay, a 5-foot-5, left-handed point guard, averages a team-leading 15.1 points per game for the Lady Eagles (19-14), who will be making their first-ever national tournament appearance.

“It’s pretty awesome, our season was very up and down but we had a great tournament,” Hay said from her hotel room Sunday “in Kansas City, I think.”

“We weren’t going in expecting anything, so it was kind of a shock, we shocked a lot of people by winning the tournament.”

The Canberra, Australia, native averaged 16.7 points per game on her way to being named the AAC Tournament’s Most Valuable Player in leading fifth-seeded Reinhardt to upset wins over fourth-seeded Bryan, top-seeded Milligan and third seed Union in the title game.

“At the time I was just happy my college career wasn’t over, but it’s definitely something I’m extremely happy with,” Hay said of the MVP honor. “It’s a team thing. It’s a great award but at the same time the team accomplishment was so great.

“Making the tournament was definitely something we all really aimed for.”

Hay averages a team-leading 15.1 points per game and also leads the Lady Eagles in average minutes played (32.7), 3-pointers (63), free throws (133-for-179), assists (107) and steals (72). In the AAC she finished ranked fourth in scoring, fourth in assists, third in steals and second in 3-pointers made, earning second-team all-conference honors.

Hay played her first three collegiate seasons at NAIA D-I Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga., before a coaching change prompted her transfer 30 miles north to Reinhardt. Hay helped the SPSU Lady Hornets reach the NAIA D-I national tournament in 2011 before a first-round exit.

The Lady Eagles will face No. 2-ranked Saint Francis (Fort Wayne, Ind.) in Wednesday’s 10:15 a.m. contest in Sioux City. The Lady Cougars (30-3) tied for the Crossroads League title and won the conference tournament by beating then-No. 1 Indiana Wesleyan in the finals.

Saint Francis, a 14-time national qualifier, has lost its last two first-round appearances.

“We only just found out on Wednesday who we play, but we’ve been looking at them individually and as a team,” said Hay. “We’ll have film sessions while we’re traveling, but it just comes down to us playing our game in the end.”

“We’ll prepare as much as we can. We’re really scrappy and we work hard, it’s just the dirty details is what got us where we are.”

Wednesday’s first-round game will be Hay’s first visit back to Iowa since her Christmas vacation her freshman year at Southern Poly in 2009-10. She has contacted her host mother, Joy Sievers of Marshalltown, and plans on letting others know her basketball career is bringing her back to the Midwest.

“It’s pretty amazing, when I realized that’s where we’re going (to play nationals) it was a really cool moment to see it come full circle and to finish my collegiate career here,” Hay said. “I won’t be able to make a personal visit (to Marshalltown) because we’re all on a charter bus and everything gets so busy.

“It’s hard (to stay in touch), but everyone there means a lot to me. That was a big stage in my life.”

Hay played a season and a half of varsity basketball at Marshalltown High School, averaging 12.3 points over 32 games her junior and senior year. She earned all-CIML Iowa Conference first-team selection as a senior in 2009 – the last such honor for a Bobcat now that the conference has realigned.

Basketball will continue to be a part of Hay’s life, she says, as she plans to return home to Australia upon graduation and play for the Canberra Capitals Academy, a semi-pro feeder team for the Women’s National Basketball League.

Shipley’s Chargers open Thursday

Hay will not be the only former area standout in the 32-team NAIA D-II national tournament this week. West Marshall?graduate McKenzie Shipley, a 5-9 freshman guard at Briar Cliff University, will also be in action.

The Sioux City-based Chargers, ranked 14th in the country, gained an at-large berth into the national tournament after finishing fourth in the Great Plains Athletic Conference.

Shipley has played in 27 of 32 games for Briar Cliff, averaging 4.1 points per game. The former Trojan all-stater started one game and posted a season-best 10 points in her second collegiate game earlier this winter.

The Chargers open tournament play Thursday at 5:15 p.m. against 20th-ranked Siena Heights (Jackson, Mich.) University. Both teams bring 23-9 records into the tournament.