West Regional at Sports Arena : USC, Miller Battle Montana and Injuries Today

Times Staff Writer

It has been one injury after another for Cheryl Miller this season. Miller is the engine that propels the USC women's basketball team, and for three years it has been a smooth, swift ride. But of late, the senior has been looking for spare parts.

Like a new elbow, wrist, finger, knee and neck. That's just the top of the list. But going into today's second round of the NCAA tournament, Miller and the Trojans will attempt to heal wounds and get running again.

USC, No. 3 in the nation and top-seeded in the West Regional, plays host to eighth-seeded Montana at 2 p.m. in the Sports Arena.

Miller being at full strength is crucial to the smooth running of the Trojan offense. When she has succumbed to physical ailments this season, USC has sputtered. Every time USC Coach Linda Sharp began to sense a chemistry developing among her starters, it seemed that Miller would wind up on the wrong end of an elbow.

"The only thing I regret this season is that Cheryl has never been able to establish a rhythm," Sharp said. "She's really had a physical season. It's been very distracting to Cheryl and to the team."

With Miller averaging 26 points and 12 rebounds a game, it's natural that the 6-foot 3-inch senior would be keyed on by opponents. To an extent, the defensive doubling and tripling on Miller has helped USC open its offense to the outside shooting of guard Cynthia Cooper and the inside help of 6-3 center Cherie Nelson.

It's small comfort to Miller, who last week was named the nation's top female college player for the third consecutive year. It was small comfort to her when four stitches were required to close a cut on her eye, a gift from Miller's admirers on the Louisiana Tech team. She has had black eyes, a sprained wrist, a wrenched knee, a sprained neck, a deeply bruised elbow and a concussion.

Just when it seemed she would finally be healthy, Miller broke the ring finger of her left hand last week in practice.

She is joined on the always-injured list by Cooper, who has a swollen jaw following the removal of her wisdom teeth last week, and by guard Rhonda Windham, who has a broken ring finger on her right hand.

Even with the aches and pains, USC (27-4) should have little trouble with Montana (27-3), which advanced by beating Utah, 58-46, in the first round.

Montana is a deliberate team, in contrast to USC's fast break. The Grizzlies move the ball slowly and use the shot clock (30 seconds in women's basketball). The reason this has worked well for them is because this team is the most accurate-shooting women's team in the school's history with a 48% average. All five starters shoot better than 45% from the field.

"They are not real tall and they aren't real fast," Sharp said. "Who can control the tempo is the bottom line."

Montana's tenacious defense will be useful against USC. The Grizzlies are second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing an average of 53.4 points a game, while averaging 67 points. The Trojans are averaging 90.

Montana is led by Marti Leibenguth, a 6-1 forward who is averaging 11.9 points a game. Sharla Muralt is the leading rebounder with a 6.3 average.

The last time the teams met was in the semifinal of the 1984 West Regional. USC won that game and went on to win the national championship. The Trojans are hoping history repeats itself this year.

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