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TOMS RIVER - Not everyone is cut out to be a sixth man. It takes a special player, one willing to check her ego at the gym door, fully conceptualize what the role entails and embrace the assignment not as a slight when measured against the status of being a starter but as a badge of honor for the exclusivity when it comes to those who thrive in the job.

Nahkaleigh Hayes-Jones has allowed herself a few private moments to wonder what it would be like to nail down one of the five spots on the opening tip for Manchester. Yet, when it boils down to what’s best for the Hawks, the senior guard understands her impact off the bench is a far more unquantifiable asset. 

Nahkaleigh Hayes-Jones of Manchester (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

“I’ve thought about it but then I say if I just keep playing how I play, then I know I will get my time,” the 5-6 Hayes confided. “Coming off the bench...I’m fine with that. I’m use to it. I’ve been a sixth man for three years and I know I play better off the bench.”

Hayes-Jones was a live wire Monday night in the championship game of the WOBM Christmas Classic, an electrical source when top-seeded Manchester was most in need of a stirring jolt. Destiny Adams had been the dominating factor in powering the Hawks to 20-point lead in the first half, one that was quickly melting away at the outset of the third as third-seeded Red Bank found its perimeter touch and chiseled the mountainous margin down to a mere five points.

Up stepped Hayes-Jones, right into a deep 3-pointer that defused Red Bank’s surging momentum and shot a current of juice into Manchester, the impetus for a finishing tear that propelled the Hawks to a 70-59 and third straight tournament title at the RWJ Barnabas Health Arena.

Adams was overwhelming in the paint, compiling 31 points, 17 rebounds and six blocked shots to secure her third consecutive MVP trophy, becoming the first player - girl or boy - to accomplish the feat in the event’s 36-year history. And, for her part that featured three 3-pointers among her 17 points, Hayes-Jones received the recognition so deserving of a consummate teammate, being named to the tournament’s First Team.
Destiny Adams of Mancehster (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

“Man, can that girl shoot,” said Manchester coach Dave Beauchemin. “She just has a knack. It’s not easy for kids not to start these days and her career has led her on that path. She has the ability to play her best game no matter what.”  

Her best reached its apex with 3:30 showing in the third. Manchester, which started the period with a 35-21 lead, felt the sting of Red Bank’s perimeter marksmanship. Junior guard Amelia Medolla struck like a cobra, sinking three treys that were complemented by senior guard Taylor Crystian, who added one of her own that stamped a 14-5 surge and pulled the Bucs to within, 40-35. Sensing the moment to stem the tides, Hayes-Jones caught a feed from senior point guard Kemari Reynolds three feet behind the arc and didn’t waste a muscle movement, flicking a jumper that hit nothing but net and bumped Manchester’s lead up to eight. 

Nahkaleigh Hayes-Jones of Manchester (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

By the time she drilled her final triple of the evening, again off a Reynolds assists, the Hawks had built their advantage up to 54-39 with 5:36 showing in the fourth.

“I know when I go into the game what I have to do and how I have to do it,” said Hayes-Jones, who last year sank 41 3-pointers in limited action on a team that featured Leilani Correa (17.0 ppg.), Destiny Adams (14.7 ppg.), Reynolds (10.1 ppg.) and  2019 graduate Dakota Adams (9.7 ppg.), proving her unique way of carving out a niche. “ I just execute and play hard.”

That work ethic doesn’t go unnoticed by those who work alongside her.

“She does all the little things,” noted Adams. “Whenever we need a three, we count on her to make it.”

Kemari Reynolds of Manchester (Photo by Gregg Lerner)

“We see her potential all the time,” added Reynolds, who finished with 12 points and five assists. “She is our star shooter. It’s her biggest strength. We’re always telling her to shoot it. She shines the whole tournament and that was so good to see.”

Recognizing her sizable height advantage inside against Red Bank’s diminutive lineup, Adams was the focal point of the Manchester offense throughout the first half. The 6-3 forward rewarded the persistence of the Hawks to work the ball into the paint, delivering 20 points before the break.

“They really didn’t have a lot of size, so it was better for me to stay in the post,” said Adams.   
Red Bank made a subtle defensive adjustment to begin the second half, compacting more in its zone to congest the lane around Adams. By denying the entry, the Bucs stemmed Manchester’s primary scoring source while finding two of its own in Medolla, who netted all 11 of her points over the final two quarters, and Crystian, a transfer from the Patrick School, who displayed how comfortable she is in the maroon and white by depositing 30 points.   

“We started breaking their pressure,” said Red Bank coach John Truhan. “By taking Medolla out (of the pressure breaker) and putting the ball in the hands of Crystian, she was able to create off the dribble and we were able to start getting Amelia some better looks. We had a chance to cut it to a one-possession game but a couple of loose balls and rebounds went their way. Manchester was excellent and Dave did a good job spacing them out. This was a great tournament for us and should help us in March.”

Red Bank (4-1)    07 14 16 22 --- 59
Manchester (5-0) 16 19 12 23 --- 70

Red Bank: Teter 3-1-0-9; Crystian 7-4-4-30; Medolla 1-3-0-11; Decker 1-0-3-5; Moriarty 0-0-0-0; Strand 0-1-0-3; Attia 0-0-1-1.
Manchester: Velez 3-0-0-6; Hourigan 0-0-0-0; Bray 0-0-0-0; Hayes-Jones 4-3-0-17; Reynolds 3-2-0-12; Ross 1-0-0-2; Adams 14-0-3-31; Anderson 1-0-0-2; Brustman 0-0-0-0; Labrecque 0-0-0-0.

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