Tiffany Hayes is the new face of the surging Atlanta Dream

Tiffany Hayes leads the way for the Atlanta Dream as the Dream look to win its first WNBA championship.

The Atlanta Dream will kick off their postseason tonight when they host the Washington Mystics in a best of 5 semifinal series.

They have had a fantastic season, setting a franchise-best 23 wins. It has been a special year for the Dream with the emergence of their underrated star, Tiffany Hayes. Angel McCoughtry may be the face of the team, but their success isn't possible without Hayes. As the regular season wound down for the Dream, I got the opportunity to talk to Hayes about the season, among other things.

When McCoughtry informed the Dream that she would not play last season because she wanted to rest, Tiffany Hayes stepped up. She averaged 16.3 points, and 3.8 rebounds per game in 2017. Tiffany's initial thoughts on McCoughtry sitting out were of pure shock.

"Wow. I was just shocked. I immediately thought all of us have to step up. Every player needed to bring it. Angel did so much for our team and played a huge part."

Despite Hayes' individual success, the Dream did not fare so well, and finished the season at 12-22. Head Coach Michael Cooper was then fired. I asked Hayes if the season was difficult for her, both mentally and physically. She said it did not bother her, and continued to work hard despite everything going around her with the coaching staff and roster.

When the 2017 season ended, the Dream went to work in the offseason. They hired head coach Nicki Collen, who was previously an assistant coach for the Connecticut Sun. They signed free agents Renee Montgomery, and Jessica Breland. And Angel McCoughtry returned to action.

But the one constant remained was Tiffany Hayes.

The Atlanta Dream had a complete turn around from last season. I asked Hayes about what was so different from last season.

"I think the coaching staff really put some effort into all of the players coming in. This is a really great team. It took some time to gel together, learn from each other while at home or on the road."

She also credits the team's success in teamwork and trust.

"Just trusting each other. Sharing the ball a lot more. Driving and kicking a lot more. People are always trying to help each other out by either crashing the glass for a wide open shot. People still think we are the old Atlanta, but we have changed."

The "old" Atlanta team Hayes is referring to is the previous Dream teams in the past that made a living at the free throw line, and in the midrange area. They didn't have three-point shooting threats that the Dream now have in Renee Montgomery, Alex Bentley and Hayes.

Hayes continued to lead the Dream in scoring again this year with 17.2 points per game, and has increased her scoring average every single season. I asked Tiffany about how she managed to be so consistent and what was her secret to her success.

"I give 110%. Every year, it gets better and better. I learn something new every year. I go overseas, I learn something from there. No WNBA player stays the same. They all grow or learn. You have to get better which is what I have been doing."

Atlanta Dream TV analyst LaChina Robinson has noticed quite a change from Tiffany Hayes this season that can be traced back to 2017.

"Angel sitting out last year had a profound impact on Tiffany because she got back to a position of having to carry the load. That was something she was used to towards the end of her years at UConn, but I think it helped her confidence coming into this season as well as having the comfort of McCoughtry back. I also think Renee Montgomery's addition was huge for Tiffany. They played together at UConn and were champions together, there is nothing like that player that knows what you are capable of and can remind you of that and raise your bar as WNBA champion themselves. Tiffany's favorite player is Allen Iverson and her quickness has increased during her time in the WNBA. She was bigger when she was drafted (lifting more in college) and I actually think that her frame now (lighter) compliments her skill set because she is the quickest player to the rim off the bounce in the league. She also has a sick handle which we have seen on display throughout the season. Nicki Collen has done a great job of giving Tiffany specific structure and responsibilities within the Dream's identity that she trusts and is flourishing under."

Despite having a great individual season, Tiffany Hayes was not named a WNBA All-Star this year. I asked her how that felt and if that motivated her at all during the stretch run before the playoffs started.

"It definitely bothered me. It was one of my goals for the season to become a WNBA All-Star. People told me I should have been there. It turned into extra motivation because now my team is doing great and we are in a good position for the playoffs."

She also said that she flew to Las Vegas for the All-Star break and had a great time. They did not talk about basketball nor the WNBA All-Star game.

Atlanta Dream play by play broadcaster Bob Rathbun, who has watched Tiffany play since she was a rookie, had this to say about where she has progressed now as a star player:

"What I like the most is she has never stopped improving. I think you can trace improvement each year, and for a player seven years in, that’s high praise. She STILL does not get recognized enough for the lock-down defender that she is. The offense comes and goes sometimes, and I wonder how much of that is a product of the condensed schedule. But her D each and every night is outstanding. She’s first-team All-WNBA material and her All-Star snub was one of the biggest injustices in league history. Best two-way guard in the league, hands down."

Head coach Nicki Collen and her coaching staff have helped the Dream players and her encouragement has also helped Hayes.

"It's great. We are not super close but all of the coaches and players, we love the energy. We are cracking jokes all the time. The chemistry is different, it just works. Coach Nicki Collen told me during the All-Star game that I should have been there and that I am the best two-way guard in the league. Of course, that is going to give you confidence. Coach has coached a lot of great players before. For her to tell me that, it gave me a lot of confidence."

Robinson also says that Tiffany Hayes has become better at handling difficult situations than she did in previous years.

"Tiffany has matured so much mentally and emotionally this season, which has been a big area of growth for her. She has matured when it comes to her outward responses during the game when things don't go her way. In 2016 she missed a playoff game after going over the technical limit, and ever since then, I have watched her mental toughness and focus grow through the challenges of a game. This season she has also really increased her IQ, effort, and relentlessness on the defensive end. Tiffany has always had the physical attributes to be a great defender but now also has the commitment to go with it. Nicki Collen and her staff do a great job of scouting so Tiffany is not just playing off her natural abilities, but also understanding player tendencies, opponent offenses, etc. to a higher degree."

Midway through the season, the Dream traded Layshia Clarendon to Connecticut in exchange for Alex Bentley. The Dream thought they needed to shake up their roster and the trade ended up working for both teams. I asked Tiffany about her initial reactions when she heard of the trade.

"I was sad because I knew Layshia for a while and she was here last year (2017) and it's hard to lose a player like that. But by bringing in Alex, I knew her game, she was looking for a comeback and the coaches thought it was a good idea and we just rolled with it. It worked in our favor and it worked out fine."

I also asked Tiffany about how Alex Bentley fit with the Dream.

"Good. She's a great person. Great teammate. Been a great backup point guard. Helping the team get good minutes. It was definitely worth it."

Tiffany Hayes' play this season earned her a multi-year extension, which she signed on August 8th. Atlanta Dream and WNBA analyst Robinson offered her thoughts on Hayes extension:

"Tiffany is deserving of the contract extension and all the accolades this year including being an MVP and defensive POY candidate. I am not sure why the broader WNBA audience, media, etc. tend to overlook Tiffany and Atlanta but I think (my own thoughts) it fuels Tiffany. UConn pedigree is often an automatic when it comes to fan support, media recognition, etc. but for some reason, Tiffany gets left out. I hope that changes."

When reflecting upon the season, Tiffany Hayes says her favorite court to play was the Las Vegas Aces court and her favorite game was the July 17th game against Connecticut in which she launched a half-court buzzer beater to win the game on the road. Her closest friend on the team is Damiris Dantas.

When I asked her about her ex-coach Fred Williams being fired from Dallas, she had this to say:

"Fred Williams is a great coach. He is a great guy. One of the best coaches to have. Just praying for him as he moves forward."

She also offered her thoughts on Lindsay Whalen's retirement.

"She's a good player. Winner. Paved the way for many. [The University of] Minnesota is lucky to have her as their head coach."

Tiffany Hayes has become a go-to player, and will be the key to the Dream advancing to the WNBA Finals. She has become one of the best two-way guards in the league, and she now has the stage to show it. The Atlanta Dream kick off the WNBA semifinals tonight against Washington.

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