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Triumph over Tragedy: Bradley Hayes’ long road ends as a Georgetown graduate

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Life had finally dealt Bradley Hayes a good hand when he got the call.

He had missed his sophomore and junior seasons in high school due to a knee injury that left him with a broken tibia and a dislocated kneecap, but as a senior, the 7-foot Hayes had played well enough at Jacksonville’s Sandalwood HS and on the AAU circuit to draw the attention of Georgetown.

He had a falling out with his father – the man whom he was named after, the man who instilled in him a love for this game – but Brad Jr. had finally reconnected with Brad Sr. before he left Florida for Washington, D.C.

Perhaps most importantly, a kid that had missed his freshman season because of poor academics was taking classes at Georgetown University. When the call came, he was just a few months into a four-year run that was supposed change the trajectory of his family’s life. Hayes’ mother, when the family lived in Rochester, New York, worked multiple jobs to pay the bills and keep a pair of growing boys fed. She did the same after the family relocated to Jacksonville when Hayes was in eighth grade.

It was the middle of October, days before his first official college basketball practices were to start and just weeks before games began. Hayes was in study hall when his phone rang.

“My brother called me,” Hayes said. “Crying.”

His father was dead. “I had just seen him a couple of weeks before,” Hayes said. “To get a phone call like that, it would break anyone.” According to his obituary, Brad Odell Hayes had died at home in his apartment in Jacksonville.

He was just 46 years old.

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Put yourself in Hayes’ shoes for a minute.

His father had passed away unexpectedly. His brother was in the military. He was a three-hour plane ride from home, where his mother, Mary Hayes, was suddenly without the three men she was used to having in her life. Dealing with an empty nest is hard enough for any parent, but having to do so while grieving the loss of someone so close is a nightmare no one should have to live through.

And Hayes knew that. He knew what she was going through. He also knew that he was an unknown recruit on a roster that already included Otto Porter, Mikael Hopkins, Nate Lubick and Moses Abraham. No one would’ve blamed him for leaving Georgetown to transfer closer to home to a program where he would actually have a chance to play right away.

But that was never an option for Hayes.

Because his mother wouldn’t allow it.

“At the time that I found out my father passed away, the first thing in my mind was to go home and help in any type of way,” Hayes said. “But she made it clear to me that I needed to stay here and focus on what I was doing. Unfortunately something bad happened, but I had to keep pushing forward. Because that’s life. Things happen that you don’t want to happen in life but you can’t put everything on hold just because one thing didn’t go as you expected it to.”

Hayes travelled back to Jacksonville for a few days to mourn. The entire Georgetown coaching staff joined him at the funeral, but when it was done, Hayes had worn out his welcome.

“The day after the funeral, she put me right back onto the plane and said, ‘You’ve got to go back,'” Hayes said.

“He’s got a mom that’s a rock, and I’m sure she was going through probably more psychological, financial, social pressure than he was,” John Thompson Jr., the legendary former Georgetown coach and the father of current head coach John Thompson III, said. ‘Big Coach’, as he’s known within the program, is still involved with the team on a daily basis, and he and Hayes have grown close since Brad Sr.’s death. “She was the one that was stranded pretty much with the father not there, the brother going into the service, he’s coming up here. She had to survive. She’s a lady that was still living in a one room house. It got to the point where he couldn’t go home because there was no room for him to go.”

“I give her a lot of credit for how she wanted to support him psychologically for having to stay up here.”

Georgetown center Bradley Hayes (42) is greeted by John Thompson Jr., right, father of Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, after an NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Washington. Georgetown won 79-72. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Georgetown center Bradley Hayes with John Thompson Jr. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

That support from home mattered. The love he received from the coaching staff and the team helped. But none of it alleviated the pressure, the stress, weighing on Hayes. He was taking college classes for the first time. He was going through college basketball practices for the first time. He was trying to figure out how to go on living his life without his father while 700 miles away from a woman that was struggling just as much as he was.

That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 17-year old.

The most difficult part? Basketball had become a double-edged sword for Hayes.

“I coped with it how I coped with everything: Basketball is my release,” he said. “I just was in the gym all the time, whenever I started feeling sad or any type of way, down on myself, I’d go to the gym. Lifting weights, shooting. Even in the gym just sitting there, it made me feel a lot better.”

But at the same time, basketball is his trigger.

“Every time I pick up a ball I think of him,” he said.

It put head coach John Thompson III in a difficult position. On the one hand, here was a kid that was the perfect candidate for a redshirt. Raw but promising. Stuck at the bottom of the depth chart. Far more valuable as a fifth-year senior than a rookie. A redshirt was the best-case scenario was for Bradley Hayes, the basketball player.

But that’s not what Bradley Hayes, the person, needed.

He needed to be a part of the team, which is why Georgetown burned that redshirt by giving Hayes 14 minutes of action over nine games. Five minutes here, two minutes there, three possessions in another game. These weren’t just garbage time minutes, either. He’d play in the middle of the second half of close games.

“That was part of the decision to play him in some of those games as a freshman,” a source with an understanding of Georgetown’s decision-making process told NBC Sports. “He just needed to play. We thought about redshirting him, but at that point he needed to play. Even if it was a minute here, two minutes here.”

“He needed to be on the court.”

Hayes knew he was going to end up a Hoya the first time he spoke to Thompson III.

It was right after an AAU tournament the spring of Hayes’ senior season in high school. He was with his friends when his cell phone rang.

“He said, ‘This is John Thompson III from Georgetown University,’ and in my mind I was like, ‘Did I hear this wrong?'” Hayes said, laughing as he retold the story in the bowels of the Thompson Center. “I was like, ‘For real?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, this is John Thompson.'”

“He said he wanted me to come [to Georgetown]. I went back and told my parents, and my dad was excited. He was a UNC fan but he knew the importance of going to Georgetown, the type of education you can get here, the history that comes with it. He was like, ‘That’s the place for you to go,’ and I knew right then and there I was going to go Georgetown.”

Basketball is what had helped bring Hayes and his father back together. Brad Sr. had played a little college ball in his day. He had been through the recruiting process, so when Brad Jr. started receiving calls from some of the local programs in the area, he knew it was time to bury the hatchet with his father.

“He’s a man, I was becoming a man, and we just had to get passed it,” Hayes said. “At the end of the day, that’s my father. He gave me life. It was petty for me to hold that grudge against him.”

CINCINNATI, OH - JANUARY 19: Bradley Hayes #42 of the Georgetown Hoyas grabs a rebound against the Xavier Musketeers at Cintas Center on January 19, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Georgetown won 81-72. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Brad Sr. knew that playing for Thompson – who had coached the likes of Roy Hibbert, Jeff Green and Greg Monroe, whose father had coached Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutumbo – would give him a shot at a professional career. But he also knew what getting that degree would mean for his son’s future, and that was more important than anything that happened on a basketball court.

That was the message the father imparted on his son when he sent him off to the nation’s capital, that getting that degree changes his life. It changes the life of his children and their children. Hayes had a modest upbringing, and this was his chance to break the cycle of living paycheck-to-paycheck.

And that message stuck.

In the last season and a half, Bradley Hayes has been a part-time starter at center for Georgetown. He missed six games at the end of the 2015-16 season due to a broken hand and he was forced to sit out the first four games of this season after the NCAA granted him a waiver for a fifth-year, but he’s played in every other game for the Hoyas during that stretch, starting 34 of them.

But it wasn’t always that easy for the big man to get minutes. After arriving at Georgetown, Hayes would spend three seasons toiling away on Georgetown’s bench. By the time his first senior season began, Hayes had amassed a grand total of 30 points in 134 minutes as a Hoya. He had more DNP-CDs in his career than games that he played in.

He was further removed from his father’s death, and after three seasons of riding the pine, it’s only natural to think about finding a better fit.

That never crossed Hayes’ mind.

“There was never any grumblings about, ‘Oh, I want to transfer,’ and that goes a lot to his character and his upbringing,” Thompson III said. “I think part of that is he understands the value of a Georgetown degree. He understand as much basketball is extremely important to him, at some point, the air is going to come out of the ball. So he values that degree. That’s one of the reasons he came here.”

Hayes went through Senior Night last season. His mom flew up from Jacksonville to attend the ceremony. He received his framed jersey, he got his standing ovation from the Georgetown crowd, he got a proper send off.

As far as Hayes knew, his college career was over.

But Thompson knew that Hayes had a case to get a waiver from the NCAA. He had only played in nine games during that traumatic freshman year – which is the magic number to be eligible for a medical redshirt, and if you think that’s a coincidence I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you – and Hayes was just one semester away from completing his degree.

So Thompson sent in the paperwork. He didn’t tell Hayes he had received the waiver until Hayes was getting ready to go on stage at Georgetown’s postseason banquet.

“When I call you up,” Thompson told him, “you’re going to let everyone else know that you’re not giving a speech. Because you’re coming back next year.”

“Literally 10 minutes before it started,” Hayes said, laughing at the memory. “Coach Thompson told me and just kept on walking.”

Hayes finished his degree during the fall semester, a philosophy major that is now working to complete his minor in Art History. He’s the first person in his immediate family to graduate from college. He’s the first person in his entire family to hold a degree from a university as prestigious as Georgetown.

“It’s not just something personal for myself that I have to do, I think it’s something that I have to do for my family,” Hayes said. “Everyone looks up to me. Uncles, cousins, nephews.”

They’re proud of him, of the man he’s grown into, of the man he’s still learning how to be.

“I’m very proud of him,” Thompson II said, “because I know what he had to deal with. I know a lot of the things that ordinarily I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t gotten close enough to talk with him and deal with him about a lot of things.”

“And it’s not like it’s over. [A parent’s death] is the kind of thing that sticks with you, that you still have to deal with, and there are other hardships that are involved with that. But he’s got people that respect who he is as a person enough to give him the support that he needs. And he’s got a mom that’s a rock.”

And because of it, he now has that Georgetown degree, too.

2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago beats No. 3 Tennessee to advance to Sweet 16

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Cinderella is headed to the Sweet 16!

For the second time in this tournament, trailing 62-61 on the final possession of the game, Loyola-Chicago has won.

On Thursday, the Ramblers got the benefit of a missed Lonnie Walker free throw and a game-winning three from Donte Ingram to beat No. 6-seed Miami, 64-62.

On Saturday, the situation was almost the same — the Ramblers had the ball with 10.5 seconds left on the clock — but the execution was different.

Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left to answer Grant Williams’ and-one and send Loyola-Chicago to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In the immortal words of Gus Johnson, the slipper still fits:

Loyola was in control of this game for the majority of the second half and led by eight points at the under-four time out, but a pair of threes from Tennessee set up Williams’ and-one on Tennessee’s final possession. Jordan Bone had a shot to win the game at the buzzer that bounced off the back of the rim.

Aundre Jackson led the Ramblers 16 points off the bench as No. 11-seed Loyola landed their second upset of the weekend, beating No. 3-seed Tennessee, 63-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Those 16 points that Jackson scored were the most that any Loyola player scored in either of their games this weekend. The 10 shots that Jackson took in the first round win over No. 3-seed Miami was the only time in those two games that a Rambler player had double-digit field goal attempts. They held Miami and Tennessee to a combined 116 points.

I say all that to say this: Loyola is not a typical Cinderella team. They don’t have some superstar scorer that carried them to this point in the tournament, like a Jairus Lyles from UMBC or a Jon Elmore from Marshall. They’re not a high-scoring team or a team that just-so-happened to catch fire from three at the right time. What they are is a smart, tough and extremely well-coached group that is everything you think of when you picture Missouri Valley basketball.

They aren’t going to give up penetration defensively. They are going to pound the defensive glass. They aren’t going to commit silly turnovers or take dumb shots. They’ll run their offense and trust that whatever their coach calls is going to get them the shot they need to get.

They will not beat themselves, and if you are going to beat them, you’re going to work for every possession.

And it’s worked.

Loyola will advance to Atlanta where they will face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 7 Nevada. With Buffalo losing and either No. 10-seed Butler or No. 11-seed Syracuse counting as anything close to a mid-major, Loyola, Marshall and UMBC are the only true Cinderella teams left in the tournament. The 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers, who became the first No. 16 seed to get to the second round of the tournament after a Friday night win over top overall seed Virginia, take on No. 9-seed Kansas State on Sunday while No. 13-seed Marshall gets a date with in-state an rival, No. 5 West Virginia.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paces No. 5 Kentucky past No. 13 Buffalo

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Its deficit cut to five, Buffalo zipped down the floor in transition. The ball found Jeremy Harris, who stepped into his 3-point shot attempt and let it fly as the crowd in Boise was ready to blow the roof off Taco Bell Arena, hopeful they’d have the chance to will the Bulls to an upset of Kentucky. The shot barrelled toward the basket, carrying Buffalo’s Sweet 16 dreams with it.

The ball, along with control of the game, clanged off the rim and bounced into Kentucky’s hands.

The No. 5 Wildcats turned away No. 13 Buffalo, 95-75, on Saturday to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

Buffalo got 26 points from Wes Clark and 18 from CJ Massinburg, and made the Wildcats sweat deep into the second round until things spiraled away from them. Making just 7 of 31 shots from 3-point range and your opponent shooting 56.3 percent from the floor is no recipe for an upset.

Even with a rough shooting day, Buffalo threatened Kentucky time and again, but at every turn, the Wildcats had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The 6-foot-6 freshman was simply spectacular, scoring 27 points on 10 of 12 shooting. He added six rebounds and six assists for good measure.

Gilgeous-Alexander was an unsolvable problem for Buffalo. The Bulls were never able to find a way to corral or deny him. He just got what he wanted when he wanted it, and what he wanted was buckets. Lots of them.

Inconsistency has been the pock on Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie campaign, but in recent weeks he’s found his groove. He’s scored in double-digits in nine-straight games. He’s either made shots or gotten to the free-throw line. Sometimes both.

For a Kentucky team without a dominant player, Gilgeous-Alexander’s emergence as a go-to and consistent scorer is huge. The Wildcats are going to have an athletic advantage in almost every game they play. If they’ve got a guy other than Kevin Knox they can count on for 15-plus, that’s going to take a lot of pressure off an offense that doesn’t have the benefit of much in the way of shooting.

The path for Kentucky to the Elite 8 looks incredibly navigable after Virginia’s stunning and historic loss Friday to UMBC. The Wildcats will have to beat a nine or 16 seed to be just 40 minutes from another Final Four.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can continue to be the offensive weapon he’s turned into over the last month, San Antonio may very well be hosting Big Blue Nation in April.

VIDEO: Buffalo’s Nick Perkins posterizes Kevin Knox

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Buffalo and Kentucky are locked in an entertaining battle on Saturday afternoon, and while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been completely dominant, the play of the day comes courtesy of the Bulls.

After Kentucky pushed their lead to 10 points with less than nine minutes left, Nick Perkins — who is known for as a three-point shooter than anything else — dunked on Kentucky’s soon-to-be lottery pick, Kevin Knox, emphatically:

Bettor wins $16,000 on UMBC wager

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The whole country became UMBC fans throughout Saturday night as the Retrievers attempted – and ultimately pulled off – the first-ever 16-over-1 upset in the NCAA tournament against Virginia.

There may have been one person at The Venetian in Las Vegas cheering a little more than most, though. They had a little more on the line. The moneyline, to be exact. 

One bettor won $16,000 on a $800 wager that UMBC would beat the Cavaliers, which is exactly what they did, 74-54, in Charlotte.

While the bet paid off this time and it makes for an all-time story, it’s probably best not to make this your betting strategy. If you would have bet 800 bucks on every 16 seed every year, you would have been $108,000 in the hole before getting your Retriever payout and riding a rough 135-bet losing streak. Can’t win without buying a ticket, though, right?

And it’s not like that the person who just cashed a $16,000 check cares about that at the moment. Also no word on how they’re betting UMBC against Kansas State, either. The Wildcats are 10.5-point favorites, if you were wondering.