03/11/12 — OPINION: Craig Hayes career not about statistics

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OPINION: Craig Hayes career not about statistics

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on March 11, 2012 12:42 AM

With the sting of Sunday afternoon's loss to Barton in the Conference Carolinas tournament finals still fresh in the air, Craig Hayes sat in the interview room inside Kornegay Arena and talked about what a privilege it was to play one final home game.

Rather than focusing on what went wrong, Hayes raved about his teammates' resiliency in their second-half comeback attempt. Instead of discussing his team-high 20 points, the conference-player-of-the-year credited Barton's performance.

That one interview was a glimpse into not just Craig Hayes the basketball player -- but Craig Hayes the person.

A hard-nosed forward from Woodbridge, Va., Hayes missed all of last season due to an injury. Hayes returned for his senior season to average 19 points and seven rebounds a game. He is the only player in the conference ranked in the top six in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage.

Hayes scored 30 or more points in five different games in his career, including four during his senior season. He finished his career with 1,522 points and 662 rebounds.

Sure, Mount Olive has had talented players who were perhaps more celebrated in recent memory. At 6-foot-4, Hayes doesn't quite possess the size of former Trojan and conference POY Brandon Streeter. Hayes isn't the pure scorer like alum Kendrick Easley, the school's all-time leading scorer who was also a conference POY.

What Hayes does have is a lunch-pail work ethic and a willingness to bang on the interior for hard-earned points or rebounds with taller opponents. Hayes never shied away from locking down quicker opponents on the perimeter or from having the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

Mount Olive head coach Joey Higginbotham fought back tears following a senior night win over Erskine in mid-February when talking about what Hayes, and fellow seniors Derek Staton and Kason Cheeks meant not only to the program -- but to his life.

Hayes, Staton and Cheeks not only led through words, but more importantly, through actions. Described by Higginbotham as the first in the gym and the last to leave, the three seniors demonstrated a willingness to do anything asked of them not only in practice, but in games.

"I'm awfully proud of my seniors and what they've accomplished," Higginbotham said following Sunday's loss to Barton. "Craig Hayes has been an outstanding player not just for our team, but for our institution. He's a class act."

Guys like Craig Hayes epitomize the team-first mentality that college athletics are all about. Before leaving the interview room, Hayes confidently stated the he and the Trojans had more games to play. Little did he know that dream would be shattered by the NCAA selection committee late Sunday night.

Hayes wasn't just wrongfully denied the right to play one more collegiate game. He was rejected one last opportunity to, as he always did, leave everything he had on the floor.