America's Got Talent season 17 sensation Maddie Baez may not have had her biggest "cheerleader" in the crowd for her live show performance on Tuesday, but she didn't let that stand in the way of delivering another standout performance.
The 11-year-old singer brought the crowd to their feet with her take on Whitney Houston and Kygo's version of the Steve Winwood hit "Higher Love."
Speaking to PEOPLE backstage after the performance, Baez said she knew singing the tune would be a "challenge," but also knew it would be worthwhile.
"I love challenges and it was also a song that really connected to me," she explained. "It's a song that worships God and brings a lot of love to everybody, and I think that's what everybody needs in the world."
Baez first stunned the show's judges with her surprise a cappella audition of "Amazing Grace," which led Howie Mandel to award her with his Golden Buzzer. It was then that the AGT super fan from Yorba Linda, Calif. disclosed that she started singing after her dad was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.
While Baez's father was in attendance for her audition, he sadly was not able to be there for her first live show performance.
But as Baez explained, "it meant the world" to be able to dedicate her latest showing to her dad. "Just to be able to sing it to him... I put a lot of that power back into the song and I think that's what helped me tonight," she said.
Given the circumstances, Mandel, 66, said he was proud of his Golden Buzzer act for holding her own on the main stage.
"I don't know how anybody, let alone an 11-year-old girl, is able to keep composed under the pressure of a live show and the competition that is surrounding them," he explained backstage. "[Her dad] isn't here tonight, and he's been her cheerleader, so I would imagine there's something not great going on."
"My heart and my prayers go out to her and her family, but to be 11 years old and still deliver at that level is amazing and unbelievable," he added.
"I thought she did really well," Klum shared. "And you know, it's just a beautiful, lovely story too with her. She started singing because of her dad who was ill in the hospital, so I feel like it's beautiful that she was there to help her dad get through this ... they must be super proud of her."
"[She was] amazing," Vergara said. "She's so confident, she is so centered. She knows what she wants to do. It's amazing to see a little girl at 11 years old command a stage like that."
Crews added: "On that stage tonight, when she saw all those people standing and cheering her name. I mean, you know, it's just very rare that people get to ever do that with something they love. And she did that tonight. And her being so young, and so talented, I can't wait to see what she does. No matter what happens here on AGT... she's got a whole wonderful future ahead of her."
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Baez said she was so happy to have the judges' support throughout this entire experience, especially that of Mandel's.
"He came up after my performance to congratulate me and to talk to me for a little bit and I couldn't be more thankful," she said, adding that she got emotional on stage after her live performance.
"Just being in front of the America's Got Talent audience, having all of them chanting your name, on their feet, and knowing that you touched millions of people, can bring you to tears and I think that's what happened tonight," she shared.
While her dad was unable to attend, Baez's family and friends were able to see her hit the high notes in person, and having them in the crowd "cheering my name made my heart warm."
"It was relief, excitement, I mean, it was pure joy," she said of her emotions after coming off the stage. "It was awesome and I really felt that I accomplished a lot."
Even without her dad in the audience, Baez took his advice to heart while hitting the stage. "He's always said, 'Connect with the crowd and you'll win the audience. You'll win when you give your heart out,'" she explained.
Fans will find out if Baez is one of two viewer-voted contestants to move onto the season 17 finale when the AGT results show airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.