STARKVILLE — Anastasia Hayes got a call she didn’t expect – it came around 9 pm that Saturday. When she answered it, Sam Purcell was on the other end.
It was March 12 – the day Purcell was announced as Mississippi State’s women’s basketball coach.
“Where are you?” Purcell asked. “Can you come see me right now?”
“Um, OK,” Hayes responded.
Moments later, she met Purcell, his wife and their three daughters. Purcell made his pitch to Hayes to return to MSU for her final season of eligibility.
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Hayes had professional basketball interest, but she wanted to hear Purcell’s pitch. He told her what most Mississippi State recruits have heard in his three months at the helm: this isn’t a rebuild, it’s a retool toward returning to national contention.
“It just made me realize one more year would be best for me to stay and play under his wing,” Hayes said, “and get the opportunity to take Mississippi State back to SEC championships and go to Final Four.”
Last season started with coach Nikki McCray-Penson’s resignation a month before the first game. Players transferred and some were injured, leaving interim coach Doug Novak with a minimum seven players at his disposal.
The tension off the court didn’t help.
Players were not getting along, highlighted by an altercation including leading scorer Rickea Jackson at halftime of an ugly January loss at Ole Miss. Hayes was late arriving on the bench after the break.
Jackson joined The Committee via Twitter Spaces last month where she discussed her departure.
A chance with a new staff to leave the drama in the past is part of why Hayes returned.
“You want everybody to feel comfortable,” Hayes said. “Building those relationships with each and every single one of my teammates is going to make it way easier to win games and want to win games.”
Hayes played through a torn ligament in her non-shooting (left) thumb that required an offseason procedure.
She says there’s a week left until she’s 100% cleared, but she has already started to participate in workouts and feels fine.
She also suffered a concussion prior to MSU’s win at UT Martin, which sidelined her four games.
She finished third in the SEC with 18.6 points per game, but it came at the expense of averaging 36 minutes.
With a full 15 players roster, Purcell has a layer Novak didn’t.
“I’m proud of what we did last year with what we had, but this year I feel something so special,” Hayes said. “I feel like with all the pieces, with the new coaching staff and with everyone around them, this whole organization is already growing.”
The Hayes sisters
Anastasia and her sisters Aislynn and Alasia came to Mississippi State together. Alasia transferred in from Notre Dame while Anastasia and Aislynn came from Middle Tennessee. Anastasia played at Tennessee her freshman season before transferring to MTSU, which is in her hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Anastasia quickly became the star while Aislynn’s role developed off the bench as the roster thinned. She averaged 4.2 points and shot 32% from 3-point range.
But the trio didn’t get the experience they hoped for as Alasia was sidelined for the season with a lower-leg injury suffered last June, The Clarion Ledger reported.
She’s expected to take the court next season, which was another reason Anastasia found it important to return and fulfill a lifelong dream.
“Just being able to have a sister on the team is amazing,” Anastasia said. “I’m so excited for all of us getting to play with each other again.”
Stefan Krajisnik is the Mississippi State beat writer for the Clarion Ledger. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @skrajisnik3.