(Editor’s Note: A’Queen Hayes is a basketball player who starred at Horn Lake before playing collegiately at Ole Miss and Eastern Kentucky and this season as a graduate transfer at Middle Tennessee State. This article is printed with permission.)
Middle Tennessee has been aided by high-level play from new faces all season, but one new Lady Raider has been the queen of them all. That also happens to be her name.
A'Queen Hayes came to MT in the summer of 2018 as a graduate transfer from Eastern Kentucky, where she starred for one season on the hardwood at Alumni Coliseum. She was first-team All-Ohio Valley Conference, ranking in the top 12 in the league in scoring, rebounding, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio, steals and minutes.
The redshirt senior's collegiate basketball story started long before she donned the blue and white of Middle Tennessee and the maroon of EKU, though, and it included a familiar face who now sits on MT's sidelines.
Born a Rebel
Hayes grew up in the southern suburbs of Memphis just over the Mississippi state line, graduating from Horn Lake High School in Horn Lake, Miss.
After transferring to Horn Lake from Southaven High School during her senior year, Hayes led the Lady Eagles to the Class 6A state semifinals in an all-state honorable mention campaign.
During that season, Horn Lake participated in the 2013 Tennessee Turkey Jamm, a Thanksgiving weekend tournament held at Riverdale and Blackman High Schools in Murfreesboro that included 37 of the best girls basketball teams in the Southeast. It was Hayes's first trip to the Boro, and happened to be the first time she'd see future Lady Raider teammate Alex Johnson, who was playing for host Blackman.
Little did Hayes know she'd be spending a lot more time in Johnson's hometown in the future.
Rated the No. 13 player in the senior class in Mississippi by the Mississippi Girls Basketball Report, Hayes had her pick of several Division I schools. She thought she had her mind made up early on, but later a different coach made a big impact the first time she talked to him. She subsequently flipped her commitment to Ole Miss in November of 2013.
The coach who made Hayes flip was Matt Insell, the son of now 14-year Middle Tennessee head man Rick Insell, who had been at Ole Miss for one year when Hayes arrived on campus in 2014. He recruited Hayes because of her winning nature, and the two quickly built a strong player-coach bond.
"No matter where Queen has been and who she's played for, she's always had a winning mentality," Matt Insell said. "She's one of my girls ... she's like a daughter of mine. She calls me 'Pops;' she's just a great kid and is a special, special person."
Hayes would go on to be named to the All-SEC Freshman Team after averaging 7.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, and the Rebels finished 19-14 and 7-9 in SEC play.
Their last game that season was in the WNIT Third Round. After beating UT Martin and Georgia Tech, Ole Miss advanced to play a team they'd faced once in the regular season. It was also a program Matt Insell knew very well, and one Hayes would come to know.
The Rebels made the four-hour trip from Oxford to Murfreesboro, Hayes's second trip to the city, where Middle Tennessee was waiting on its home floor.
After going up by 15 in the first half, the Lady Raiders cruised into the Elite 8 with an 82-70 win.
"I remember everything about that game," Hayes said. "Me and Ty [Petty] still go back and forth about that game all the time."
Back to MT
The next season, Ole Miss traveled to Murfreesboro again, this time in the regular season, and again Rick Insell got the better of his son's team, 84-75.
It would be a struggle for Hayes, Matt Insell and the Rebels from there, as they would finish the season 10-20 and on an 11-game losing streak. Hayes finished fourth on the team in scoring (6.3 per game) and third in rebounds (5.3 per game).
If the tough season wasn't bad enough, in April Hayes was pulled over in Oxford and arrested, charged with driving under the influence of something other than alcohol.
Matt Insell was forced to dismiss Hayes from the team, but he didn't cast her off. He helped Hayes land at Eastern Kentucky, where she would have to take a redshirt season due to NCAA transfer rules before getting back on the court in 2017-18.
"It was hard to leave Ole Miss, because everyone there was like family and it was basically right down the street from my mom," Hayes said. "That year gave me time to focus on myself and build myself on the court and off the court. I bettered myself and grew ... and that's what I try to do every day now. That whole year really changed me as a person."
With a second chance, Hayes had a sensational junior season for the Colonels and graduated from Eastern Kentucky with a bachelor's degree in general studies and minors in education, recreation and legal studies.
In the spring of 2018, she notified her coaches she wanted out of her scholarship in order to transfer as a graduate student. The first person she texted was Matt Insell, who was also looking for his next stop after being let go from Ole Miss.
"She called and said she was going to play her fifth year somewhere else, and she asked what I thought," the head coach said. "I knew once she met my dad she'd want to be [at MT]."
After Matt Insell announced in May he would join his dad at Middle Tennessee as an assistant coach, he quickly got Hayes and her mother to visit Murfreesboro, and she signed a letter of intent to be a Lady Raider.
"We knew she was a great player and a great kid," Rick Insell said. "We were immediately interested ... and when we met with her and her mom, she gelled with our players and coaches. It's just a great, great fit."
Hayes had to battle through a facial injury in Middle Tennessee's first few games that required her to wear a protective mask, but she's flourished with the black eye and tough-girl look, leading the Lady Raiders to an 11-4 record, 2-0 in Conference USA.
She's the only player in C-USA to lead her team in points, assists and rebounds, and she's also second for MT in steals and blocks. She ranks in the top 10 in the league in points, rebounds, field goal percentage, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and minutes.
Once the season ends, Hayes will move on to the next chapter in her life. She hopes her play is good enough to warrant WNBA interest, but if not will likely take her talents overseas.
"It's in God's hands," Hayes said. "If I have to go overseas, I'm willing to take any challenge. As long as I got basketball in my life, I'll be good to go."
No matter where she goes, there's one person Hayes will never hesitate to call for advice or consoling.
Matt Insell and Hayes have developed an incredible bond since their time in Oxford. The coach has never steered the player wrong nor given up on her, even in her darkest of times, and she will be forever grateful for his guidance and for helping her get a second chance.
"Coach Matt is what every athlete looks for," Hayes said. "When you're in the recruiting process, you look for family away from home, and that's exactly what he is to me. He's like a father figure for me outside of being my coach."
For the rest of the season, Hayes will continue to be Middle Tennessee's Queen of the Court. Conference USA foes should take note.
Josh Vardaman is the staff writer for goblueraiders.com.