USC's Miller time nets first NCAA repeat
Editor's note: As the NCAA celebrates its 25th season of women's basketball, ESPN and ESPN.com count down the top 25 moments of NCAA Tournament history. Here, we continue the countdown with memorable NCAA moment No. 9, Cheryl Miller leading Southern California to back-to-back titles.Before UConn and Tennessee became perennial fixtures at the women's NCAA Tournament in the 1990s and in the new millennium, schools such as Louisiana Tech, Georgia, Old Dominion, Auburn and USC dominated the Big Dance in the early '80s.
The rosters of those schools now read like a who's who in women's basketball: Teresa Edwards, Katrina McClain, Kim Mulkey, Sonja Hogg, Cynthia Cooper, Lynette Woodard, Paula and Pam McGee, Denise Curry and perhaps the most celebrated of them all -- Cheryl Miller.
When Miller arrived at Southern California in 1982, everyone in the game knew that the lanky 6-foot-3 swing player out of Riverside, Calif., would very quickly establish herself as the face of women's college hoops.
By the end of the regular season, Miller led the top-ranked Women of Troy in scoring, and she was about to guide them to their first NCAA title. USC entered the Final Four that year with a 29-2 mark. Its only losses had come against local rival Long Beach State and defending NCAA champion Louisiana Tech. Since the Lady Techsters had beaten the Trojans 58-56 at home, USC wanted nothing more than to ruin the Lady Techsters' bid for a second consecutive title at the Scope in Norfolk, Va.
"We wanted them," Miller said in a recent interview. "We wanted them bad."
They got 'em. USC, en route to the first of its two national championships, polished off Georgia 81-57 in the semifinals and then came back to edge La. Tech 69-67 in front of 32,876 in the title game. Miller, who hit some key baskets in the final five minutes of the final, led both teams with 27 points, a women's NCAA championship game record. She also set title game marks for most free throws attempted (14) and made (11) en route to the first of her two consecutive Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors.
Miller, now an NBA analyst for TNT, recalled her most vivid memory of that game.
"Wow! I just think the journey to get to the final championship game, and then to have to square off against Louisiana Tech and Leon [Barmore] and Sonja Hogg," Miller said. "Then you've got Kim Mulkey, Janice Lawrence -- and just how good that team was. There was no love lost, and I just remember being in Norfolk. The crowd was tremendous, and the next thing you know we're going in the locker room almost 20 points down.
"We didn't start off well, but we finished great."
The Trojans' repeat campaign got off to a great start eight months later as the 1983-84 season opened. Once again USC entered the season atop the AP polls and won its first 10 games. Linda Sharp's team showed some signs of mortality during a three-game slide in January in which the Trojans lost to Texas, La. Tech and ODU. But after that, they won 14 straight before recording their fourth and final loss against Long Beach State in March.
"Those were tough losses, but we never lost focus," Miller said.
The Trojans avenged that loss during the West Regional, setting up another Final Four matchup with perennial fan favorite La. Tech. But it was a rematch Miller looked forward to.
"You always wanted to play them," Miller said. "They were one of the best teams in the country and there was a lot of history attached to them."
For the second time in as many years, USC denied La. Tech in the Final Four, topping the Lady Techsters 62-57 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. The only team that stood between USC and a second consecutive title was 15th-ranked Tennessee (the Trojans had already beaten the Lady Vols in the regular season). Tennessee was good but not quite legendary yet, though it scored wins over Georgia and Old Dominion that season. In the end, USC beat Tennessee 72-61 for the '84 title.
"We had tremendous respect for the Lady Vols," Miller recalled. "We knew about their coach and how she had turned that team around. And we knew what Lea Henry could do. I guess the thing I remember most was just wanting to win -- wanting to be the first team in NCAA history to repeat. We had such a strong team and we were deep.
"Again, we found ourselves down at the half, but the crowd in L.A. really helped us step it up and we were able to put them away down the stretch."
That would be the last time the Trojans, coached by Linda Sharp, would have to clean off a spot in the trophy case in Heritage Hall. The following season, Long Beach State ended USC's threepeat dreams by topping the Trojans 75-72 in the West Regional. And, in Miller's final season at USC, the Trojans fell to the Texas Longhorns 97-81 in the title game at the University of Kentucky.
"I enjoyed it all," Miller said. "The good times and the bad times. It was the time of our lives."Click here to see when the next memorable moment will air in our countdown.
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