She said it quietly:
“I’m lucky to be here.”
But Antania Hayes was not talking about the way injuries have hampered her basketball career, going back to when she was 12 and tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her right knee and then last March 10 when she tore the left ACL in Wright State’s first game of the Horizon League Tournament.
And in between those two serious injuries there’s been a fractured hand, a fractured ankle, a separated shoulder, a concussion and hip problems.
Nor was the Raiders’ 6-foot-1 senior forward referring to the way she beat the odds and not only will be the first person in her family to graduate from college, but how she’s the first to even go to a four-year school.
And neither was she talking about how her brother Jeremiah was murdered back home in Detroit and how, when she first got the news, she punched a wall several times, breaking her hand – she still played a day later – and then went on a volatile emotional detour after that.
No, when Hayes half-whispered that aside about her luck as she sat and talked about her often-storied career on the eve of her Senior Night recognition Sunday, she was referring to the serious auto accident she was involved in on Interstate 75 on Jan. 1.
It was a close call known by very few outside the WSU women’s team.
“We’ve kept it quiet,” Hayes said before finally revealing the frightening details.
She said she was driving her fiancé’s Honda Accord to Detroit to take her younger sister, Ja’Lisa, to the bus station.
She said it was about 6 a.m. and they were near Toledo when a tractor trailer in the other lane blew a tire.
Hayes took my reporter’s notepad and began to diagram the accident.
“I tried to avoid it and went this way, but the car spun out,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘Control it so we don’t die!’
“We ended up hitting the railing by the median and we nearly went over it. The car lifted up in the air and when it came down we were pointed the other way on road.
“Right then all I did was pray ‘cause we could have been dead. The car was tore up bad and it hit me and my sister a day later. I had a concussion and whiplash.”
She missed six games in January, though until now, the cause was not known publicly.
“I’ve definitely had a lot of things happen over the past few years,” she said. “It’s been a pretty bumpy road at times.”
And that, she said, is what made the Senior Night ceremony after the Raiders’ 62-52 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the Nutter Center – a win that gave 23-7 WSU a share of its first-ever regular season Horizon League title — much more emotional for her.
Hayes is WSU’s lone senior and when she took the court afterward with several family members – especially her mom and dad, Sheila and Antonio Hayes – she broke into tears.
“My parents are so proud of me and through it all, they kept me going,” she said. “There were times when I was stressed out and feeling overwhelmed and wanted to stop. I’d say, ‘I just can’t do this no more!’
“And they’d be like, ‘No Baby, you done come this far. It’s no time to turn around now. You might as well get that degree and walk across the stage and let us cheer some more.’”
Setbacks at young age
Hayes was playing AAU ball as a 12 year old when she suffered that first serious knee injury.
“I went up for a layup and came down on two girls’ feet and my knee just went,” she said. “I didn’t start playing basketball again until I was in ninth grade. The doctor said I was just too young. I should wait until I finished growing.”
She came back to the game with a vengeance and as senior at Martin Luther King High in Detroit, she averaged close to a triple double – 16 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists a game – was named Metro Detroit’s Player of the Year, was a Michigan Miss Basketball finalist and was the No. 36 prep prospect in the nation according to HoopGurlz.
The death of her brother in February of her senior season derailed her briefly.
“A jealous friend came to his house, knocked on the door and shot him three times,” she said.
After he brother’s death she said, “I developed a bad temper. I was angry. It’s one of the things I really don’t like that happened from it.”
To remember her brother, she had a pair of tattoos – “RIP Jeremiah” and his last name – inked on her right arm. For a couple of years after that, before shooting free throws, she’d kiss her right arm as a tribute to him.
Heavily recruited, she narrowed her college suitors to five – Michigan, Syracuse, Penn State, DePaul and Marquette – before finally committing to DePaul.
Academic issues eventually forced her to go to a junior college first and she ended up at Kennedy King College in Chicago, where, in two seasons, she scored 1,066 points and grabbed 708 rebounds.
Thanks to the recruiting of then WSU assistant Katrina Merriweather and a final sales job by head coach Mike Bradbury, the Raiders signed her early, just as some Power 5 conference schools were narrowing their sights on her.
Last year she played in 30 games for WSU, started 28, averaged 12.2 points and had several big impact games, including 29 points against Houston, 26 against Georgia and 24 versus Detroit Mercy.
Then came the torn ACL in the first game of the tournament. “I went in for a layup, got pushed in the air and came down wrong again,” she said
Merriweather – who took over the program when Bradbury went to New Mexico – figured Hayes would be lost this entire season. Then came the video her senior forward sent her in December.
“It was me grabbing the rim,” Hayes grinned. “When I tore my ACL I thought I couldn’t jump no more, but then one day when I was working in the gym I just jumped and got the rim. I was like ‘Ooooh, I got my hops back a little bit.’”
She had men’s player Mark Alstork take a video of her doing it again and she sent it to her coach.
After missing the first eight games this season, Hayes took the court for the first time Dec. 15 against Cincinnati Christian, played eight minutes and scored eight points.
She said she’s about 60 percent of her old self now. Counting Sunday’s game, she’s played in 15 of the Raiders’ 30 games and scored in double figures just once – getting 12 against Miami.
‘Training room is like my second home’
“Honestly, when I get out of bed and come for a shoot around or anything in the morning I feel like an old man because I be crackin’ and poppin when I move,” said the 21-year-old Hayes. “My body is getting old.”
To play now takes a lot of work and she gives credit to the Raiders trainers:
“The training room is like my second home.”
Sunday she spent nearly an hour in there before tip-off and once the game started, she crawled up on a stationary bike set up behind the bench and pedaled away – “I ride four miles before I ever touch the court,” she laughed — until Merriweather sent her in midway through the first quarter. Within about a minute she had a rebound and a steal.
In all she played six minutes and did not score.
“Even though she doesn’t score like she did a year ago, she gets the attention of the other team solely because of what she’s capable of doing,” said Merriweather as she watched Hayes and the rest of the team climb up a ladder and cut down the net after the game.
Later, a still emotional Hayes wrestled with the reality that her WSU career was winding down:
“I’ll miss my teammates. This was like family. It was definitely a good choice coming here and I feel like I accomplished a lot.”
She was talking about more than just what she’s done on the court.
“One thing that’s really important to me is that my siblings look up to me,” she said. “They say ‘Nia, I want to play like you. I want to go to school just like you.’
“They see what I’m doing and they want to take the same road.”
Well, she amended, maybe one with a few less bumps and bruises.