It was Cheryl Miller's 22nd birthday Friday night, all right. The City of Riverside gave her a 6-foot 3-inch birthday cake, she splurged and gave herself 30 points to add to her career total at USC, and Old Dominion University's women, those battling defending national champions, gave her a pat on the back.
And a chop to the knee. And a bash to the head. Everything but a knife to the back. Must have left the cutlery in Norfolk.
Nonetheless, the USC women's basketball team showed it can alley-fight, too. The No. 2 Trojans beat Old Dominion, 89-76, before 2,300 of Miller's hometown fans in Raincross Center.
It was Cheryl Miller Day in Riverside, and a short hop to Riverside Poly High School, where Miller began to accumulate her cult following. Kids here have the Miller hair style, wear the Miller basketball shoes and do the Miller shuffle when they get excited.
For her part, Miller was still wearing the two black eyes she received as pre-Christmas presents from opponents. She was also wearing ice on her elbow after the game and had new swelling on her right knee. Seemed as if all Miller's presents Friday night were wrapped in black and blue.
"They (officials) have got to call these games tighter," Miller said. "I get scared when we get a big lead. Then, they don't call anything."
USC (11-1) took a physical beating in the game, and not just Miller. Cynthia Cooper, who had root-canal surgery three days ago, played in pain Friday night.
More pain came late in the game when an Old Dominion player inadvertently jammed her finger into Cooper's jaw--to the root of the pain.
Cooper got 16 points, although it hurt too much to smile about it.
The Monarchs suffered a casualty. Starting forward Marie Christian slammed to the floor in what her coach, Marianne Stanley, described as "a freeway pileup." Christian weaved her way out of the arena with a concussion.
Old Dominion didn't start the season with a team nearly as strong as last season's national champions. Stanley's teams can always be counted on to be tightly disciplined, steady and not particularly speedy.
This season, the Monarchs added another dimension--injury-proneness. A team that has only one senior (6-4 starting center Dawn Cullen) lost her to knee surgery. That took away most of Old Dominion's height.
Cullen's replacement, 6-2 Donna Harrington, has been sputtering on this trip because of strep throat. Harrington is the only Old Dominion starter over 6 feet.
Bridget Jenkins missed two games early in the season while coming off Achilles' tendon surgery, then got the flu. Forward Nina Pont suffered a knee injury Dec. 4 and has played sparingly.
All of which has nudged the already high-strung Stanley to the edge of hypertension. Given her background, Stanley's frustration is understandable. In her ninth year at Old Dominion, Stanley has the best winning percentage (.877) of any active coach in men's or women's basketball. Yet, for the first time since 1975, the inception of the women's poll, the Monarchs (5-4) are unranked.
Friday night, Old Dominion played roughly, but not badly. USC was working both ends of the floor well. Defensively, the Trojan zone kept the Monarchs from penetrating and forced them to take shots from the outside. The shots didn't fall.
Offensively, the Trojans were shooting well, especially from the perimeter. USC was 64% for the game.
Outside shooting has become an ace up the Trojans' sleeve this season. Because opponents are wary of Miller, and others, inside, USC is often given free reign of the perimeter. Cooper, freshman Karon Howell and Holly Ford all have excellent long-range jump shots.
Ford, especially, was dangerous outside. The sophomore forward from Santa Barbara has been asked by Sharp to take on more of the scoring. She is averaging only 6.7 points a game, but Friday night, she made 5 of 7 shots from the field for 10 points.
"They were slacking off me because of Cooper," Ford said. "I'm trying to get into the swing of the offense. I like to shoot."
USC had as much as a 14-point lead in the first half, assisted by Old Dominion's 38% shooting. As usual, the Trojans were outrebounded, 43-28 this time.
Jenkins led Old Dominion with 20 points, while Harrington had 19.