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Miller’s Time Starts Well in USC Win

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The little bus vibrated with high-volume, thudding rap music as it motored across a highway and past frosty, shorn cornfields in northern Illinois.

In the front seat right: Cheryl Miller, nervously chewing gum, alone with her thoughts in the music’s din.

The bus was taking her basketball team on a 17-mile trip to her first game as USC’s head women’s basketball coach.

Soon, it would be Miller time for USC.

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Soon, her talented, deep team would make her a 90-79 winner in her regular-season debut, before a crowd of 2,001 at Northern Illinois University.

Miller, the former four-year All-American player at USC, saw her team play a choppy, uneven first half, then build up a lead that reached 17 points at one stage.

She was animated at times, loudly questioned officials’ calls three times, was quiet and patient at other times . . . and fouled up once, but was able to laugh at herself about it afterward.

“I was extremely nervous before the game, more nervous than I’d ever been in my life,” she said. “If I’d known coaching would be this tough, I’d have stayed in broadcasting.”

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Miller, named USC’s coach Sept. 2, inherited a formidable team.

Northern Illinois, now 0-3, was an NCAA tournament team last season, had a 24-6 record and a conference title and is expected to win the Mid-Continent championship again. NIU also has one of the best players in the women’s game, guard E.C. Hill, who scored 35 points Wednesday night.

There were nine first-half lead changes, but none in the second half, which began with a 35-34 Trojan lead. USC started to put the game away with an 11-0 run that took the Trojans to 52-43 lead with 14:02 left.

That was followed by a one-minute, six-point flurry of steals and baskets that created a 72-55 lead with 7:32 to go.

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The only foulup in Miller’s debut came late in the game, when Miller and her assistants, Fred Williams and Frank Scott, thought All-American Lisa Leslie had three fouls when she actually had four. She fouled out with 5:47 to go, causing consternation on the USC bench.

“I wanted to strangle myself,” Miller said. “But it’s a great feeling to know you can screw up that bad and still win. I learned lesson No. 1--never trust the scoreboard when it says three fouls.”

Miller played 11 players, seven of them for 13 minutes or more. Senior point guard Nicky McCrimmon played her career game for USC, scoring 27 points and adding three steals and four assists. Leslie, the 6-5 senior, had 14 points, 11 rebounds, six blocked shots and five steals.

Today, Miller takes her 1-0 team to the University of Richmond and a weekend tournament that includes Texas, Maryland and Richmond. Richmond, she pointed out in pregame remarks, is the site of this season’s Final Four.

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“Coach told us she thinks we’re a talented team and that the road to the Final Four starts right here, tonight,” said Leslie.


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