COLUMBIA — The dunk caused Karon Hayes' first feeling of doubt that day.
From his seat on the sideline, the Rock Bridge forward watched as Holt’s Dantiel Daniels threw down a one-handed jam on the first play of the 2010 Class 5, District 9 semifinal.
Rock Bridge was the top seed, 20-5 and ranked No. 10 in the state. Holt was the fourth seed. A year before, in the same game between the same teams, Rock Bridge won 71-44. The Bruins expected a repeat.
“We came out thinking we were going to destroy them,” Hayes said. “After I saw the dunk, I had my worries.”
Without forward Logan Parks out after a disciplinary suspension, Rock Bridge had no answer for Daniels. He scored 28 points as Holt shocked the Bruins 51-50.
Hayes, then a junior, never got the opportunity to make a difference. He had earned playing time after performing well and “making a statement” in a close game against Kickapoo, and even more after Parks was suspended, but Rock Bridge coach Jim Scanlon stuck with senior forwards Trey Millard and Charlie Henderson against Holt. Hayes remained on the bench.
A year later, the Bruins have nearly an identical record (20-4) and rank (No. 9). Because of the district realignment they will not face Holt, but once again Rock Bridge is the top seed and waiting for Monday’s quarterfinals winner between Hickman and Washington.
Now, with Parks, Millard and Henderson gone, Hayes leads the frontcourt. On a guard-oriented team, the 6-foot-5 forward has established himself as the most reliable player in the paint, averaging more than 10 points and between seven and eight rebounds a game this season.
His production gives the Bruins balance and makes them the favorite to win the district tournament.
“Karon’s our best finisher down low, so we need him to score,” senior Matt Kelly said. “Defensively, we need him to change shots up and get rebounds. He’s a big part of our team.”
Kelly and Hayes have been best friends since playing together in the cPhase AAU organization in junior high. Last spring when they played for the St. Louis Raptors AAU team, Kelly and Hayes decided they wanted to assume leadership roles the following fall on Rock Bridge’s team and make sure another season did not end prematurely.
Then assistant coach Quentin Mitchell pulled Hayes aside and told him that, besides junior forward Austin Ray, Hayes was the Bruins’ only real post player.
“(Mitchell) is the only coach I really talked to about it,” Hayes said. “He stressed that I’m going to have to work harder and mix with the younger players to have a good chance.”
Mitchell also told Hayes to work on his weaknesses, such as using his left hand, every time he played. Hayes began to take conditioning more seriously during Rock Bridge’s workouts at the MU track, too.
“The spring and summer are when players develop individually, and you try to mesh them together as a team in the fall,” Mitchell said. “I told him that he had to work real hard because we were going to depend on him. He’s stepped up to the challenge.”
Kelly said Hayes has also developed emotionally. In the past, adversity would upset Hayes and hurt his performance. He still can lose his head and make mental errors, but he is more composed.
“I think he’s matured over time,” Kelly said. “Sometimes if things didn’t go his way, he would pout about it. Now he just moves on to the next thing and forgets about it because sometimes (pouting) can reflect on the younger guys and they won’t play so well.
“He always has to remember that he’s a leader on the floor, so he needs to keep his head up at all times.”
In the loss to Holt last year, Rock Bridge missed its first 13 shots and fell behind 14 points. At times this season, the Bruins have also started slow, falling behind 13 points in a Jan. 22 loss to Branson.
But since that loss, Rock Bridge has won seven straight, and Hayes said the team isn't as dependent on just one or two players, such as Parks and Ricky Kreklow last year.
The hard lesson the players learned from Parks' suspension last season has made them more accountable, too.
"(Losing Logan) was a big splash for us," Hayes said. "Players that didn't play much came up, and that chemistry was gone. (This year) we have all our players, and I think our chemistry is way better. We share the ball more, and every game has different leading scorers. Last year we had Ricky, but this year everybody is getting their turns."
Come Tuesday's semifinal, Mitchell doesn't expect Hayes to try and play the role of that go-to player. His presence and ability to do the basics should be enough.
"I expect him to score in the post, rebound and play good defense," Mitchell said. "If he does two or three of those things, we'll be fine."