As the Princeton University women’s basketball team prepared for its NCAA first round contest against Wisconsin-Green Bay last Saturday, Michelle Miller wasn’t up to par.
“I had a fever on and off this week,” said Princeton junior guard Miller, a 5’10 native of Pasadena, Calif. “Yesterday I felt better so I practiced.”
Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart was concerned that she might not have Miller for the clash between the eighth-seeded Tigers and the ninth-seeded Phoenix at College Park, Md.
“Michelle was a scratch until about 12 hours ago; we have our team doctor here with us and our trainer and I am never happy when both of them are working more than I am,” said Banghart of Miller, a Shapiro Prize for Academic Excellence winner who aspires to be a doctor.
“She was going through some weird viruses and flus and things. We are a little beat up in that respect.”
Once on the court Saturday at the XFINITY Center, Miller was ready to get to work. “I wasn’t feeling sick or anything like that,” said Miller. “I got tired a little faster than usual.”
Miller’s shooting made Green Bay feel ill in the first half as she hit on 6-of-10 shots in the first half, including 3-of-3 from three-point range, to score 15 points and keep Princeton alive in a contest which saw the Tigers trailing 35-34 at halftime.
“I was just trying to come out aggressive,” said Miller, reflecting on her first half performance.
“If I have an open look for a three I am going to take it. The threes were going in today.”
The shots started going in more frequently for Princeton in the final 20 minutes of the game as the Tigers pulled away to an 80-70 victory to earn the first NCAA tourney win in program history, improving to 31-0 in the process.
In the second half, Miller turned her focus to defense, getting switched to cover Green Bay’s Mehryn Kraker, who had burned Princeton for 12 points in the first 20 minutes of the contest.
“She scored a lot for them in the the first half so I was just trying to limit her a little bit,” said Miller of Kraker, who cooled off a bit in the second half and ended up with 21 points.
“She still got a couple of more 3s. I was mad, I hit the ball with my hand on one pass and it still went right to her. I just tried to limit her shot, I know that she is one of the key shooters.”
In reflecting on the keys to the Princeton win, Miller cited more intensity at both ends of the court.
“We just had breakdowns in the first half on a couple of easy ones on some fast breaks and some backdoors, things we don’t normally give up,” said Miller, who scored a team-high 20 points on the afternoon.
“I think just locking that down and then offensively I think getting the ball inside. Wheatie (Alex Wheatley) stepped up a lot in the second half, (Annie Tarakchian) shot well and played well in the second half too. Different people stepped up for us in different parts of the game. Blake (Dietrick) hitting her free throws down the stretch. It reflects that we do have the kind of people who can step up for us.”
Winning a game in the NCAA tournament is something Miller will never forget.
“It is really incredible, this has been our goal for a long time,” said a grinning Miller, an honorable mention All-Ivy League player this season who averaged 11.9 points a game.
“Going back to my freshman year, when coach has you fill out your preseason goal sheet, it is what are your team goals, it is win a tournament game. Now I am a junior and we have finally checked that one off the list.”
Coach Banghart, for her part, knew she could count on Miller for an incredible effort once she took the court on Saturday.
“She battled through it as I knew she would; it is a great opportunity,” said Banghart. “When your best shooter is willing to defend with toughness you become a good team. We asked Michelle to get better on the defensive end and she has done that.”
The win on Saturday fulfilled Banghart’s vision for Miller and her classmates when they joined the program.
“She talked about our senior class when we were freshmen as being key in terms of getting us to the tournament,” recalled Miller, who had two points and eight rebounds last Monday as Princeton’s historic run came to an end with an 85-70 loss to top-seeded and host Maryland.
“She wanted our class to be the key in terms of taking the next step and actually having some success in the tournament and we got one today.”