‘Warrior’ Brandon Miller plays through pain to lead Alabama to Sweet 16

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – It took more than 50 minutes of basketball, but Brandon Miller finally started to look like himself in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

After being held scoreless in top-seeded Alabama’s first-round win over No. 16 seed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, the SEC Player of the Year led the Crimson Tide in the Sweet 16, recording 19 points and seven rebounds in a 73-51 win over No. 8 seed Maryland on Saturday night inside Legacy Arena.

Miller missed his first three shots on Saturday and did not register his first basket of the tournament until 6:44 remaining in the first half. The five-star freshman came into the game with a lingering groin injury he suffered in last weekend’s SEC tournament and played 19 minutes in the tournament opener. against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Thursday.

While multiple reports put him at around 80% health heading into Saturday’s game, Miller played down the injury after the game.

“I’m 100%,” Miller said. “It’s just preparation. Me and [team trainer] clark [Holter] prepared for this game physically. That’s the most important thing, just the preparation before the game.

Alabama head coach Nate Oats says his star forward is facing a little more than he’s willing to admit.

“I saw him do kind of a grimace early on. He had no pop. … He certainly wasn’t 100%. He’ll tell you he’s 100%. He’s a tough kid. He’s going to play through some things and not let people talk about how hurt he is. He and Clarke have been spending a lot of time together over the past 48 hours.

“Give him a lot of credit. He was going to leave. It was never a question of whether he was going to go or not.

Miller saw the field for 34 minutes on Saturday, just above his season average of 32.7. Although he led Alabama in scoring, he struggled to find his shot in time, shooting 5 of 17 from the floor and 2 of 6 from deep.

Whatever percentage Miller played was enough to make a difference for his team.

His biggest moment of the match came on a second-half stretch that saw him smash a lay-up attempt from Maryland’s Jahmir Young before nailing a transition 3 at the other end. Both plays created a 5-point swing that put Alabama into a 40-30 lead with 15:28 to go.

“It was great to be there,” Miller said. “It’s just a blessing to be there. I think growing up as a kid, for all kids, it’s a dream for them to be here. It’s just a blessing to be here and compete with my team.

The Alabama players certainly feel blessed to have the future NBA lottery pick on their side as well.

“He’s a warrior,” said senior goalkeeper Jahvon Quinerly. “I don’t really know where he’s at right now health-wise but just to not shoot the ball so well and still finish with 19 points, when you see that regularly in kids it shows that ‘they are a real professional.

Although Miller showed improvement from his first lap performance, he still has some way to go to get back to pulling all the gears. Quinerly thinks this is the most promising part of Saturday’s screening.

“It’s very encouraging because we know what he’s capable of when he’s at 100 per cent,” Quinerly said. “I think this whole country does.”

Miller will have five days to recover from his injury as Alabama (31-5) is set to face No. 5 seed San Diego State (29-6) on Friday in Louisville, Ky., for the Sweet 16. After Saturday’s game, Oats said the team would get the rest Miller needed, saying it would be “nice” if he had to keep the striker out of a few practices next week.

“I think it’s just about us being focused,” Miller said. “It was a big win tonight. I think we’re going to come tomorrow and probably get our bodies together and start with the basics to get ready for San Diego State.

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