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

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — It took more than 50 minutes of basketball, but Brandon Miller finally started to look like his old self during this year’s NCAA Tournament.

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

Miller missed his first three shots on Saturday and didn’t make his first field goal of the tournament until 6:44 left in the first half. The five-star rookie entered the game battling a nagging groin injury he sustained during last weekend’s SEC Tournament and played a season-low 19 minutes during the tournament opener against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Thursday.

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

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

Alabama head coach Nate Oats said his star is dealing with a little more than he’s willing to admit.

“I saw him kind of wince early. He didn’t have the pop. … He was definitely not 100%. He’ll tell you he’s 100%. He’s a tough kid. He’s going to go through some stuff and not let people realize how badly he’s hurt. He and Clarke have spent a lot of time together in the past 48 hours.

“Give him a lot of credit. He was leaving. There was never any doubt about whether or not he would go.”

Miller saw the court for 34 minutes on Saturday, just above his season average of 32.7. Despite leading Alabama in scoring, he struggled to find his shot in time, going 5-of-17 from the floor and 2-of-6 from the deep.

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

His biggest moment of the game came during a second-half run that saw him deflect a layup attempt by Maryland’s Jahmir Young before hitting a transitional 3 on the other end. The two plays created a 5-point swing that allowed Alabama to take a 40-30 lead with 15:28 to play.

“It was great to be out there,” Miller said. “It’s a blessing to be out there. I think that growing up as a child, for all children, it’s a dream to be here. It is a blessing to be here and compete with my team.”

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

“He’s a warrior,” said senior point guard Jahvon Quinerly. “I don’t really know where he is right now in terms of health, but just to not shoot the ball as well and still finish with 19 points, when you see that consistently in the kids, it shows they are a true professional.”

While Miller showed improvement over performance in the first round, he still has a long way to go to get back to shooting in all gears. Quinerly believes this is the most promising part of Saturday’s showing.

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

Miller will have five days to recover from his injury as Alabama (31-5) will face No. 5 San Diego State (29-6) on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky for the Sweet 16. Saturday’s game, Oats said the team will get the rest Miller needs, saying he’ll be “fine” if he has to hold the striker in a few practices next week.

“I think it’s just a matter of us being focused,” Miller said. “It was a great victory tonight. I think we’ll come in tomorrow and probably get our bodies back and start from the basics to get ready for San Diego State.

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