|Mikayla Miller is high atop the Gustavus Adolphus career leaderboard.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
By Brian Lester
Mikayla Miller almost walked away from basketball after high school.
“I wasn’t going to play. I was satisfied with where I was at in life,” Miller said. “My mom and dad told me to give it a shot, and if I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t have to keep playing.”
She opted to play and has enjoyed a remarkable career, leading the Gusties to the Sweet 16. Gustavus Adolphus punched its ticket Saturday with a stunning 74-60 win over host UW-Whitewater.
If Miller had decided not to play college hoops, some other team might be moving on to play Thomas More on Friday night in Holland, Mich.
Instead, Miller and her teammates are still playing basketball. The senior guard wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Being my senior year, this is something I’ve always dreamed of, and it still feels surreal,” Miller said. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh my Gosh’ we are leaving Wednesday and playing another game. I’m super excited and eager and not ready to be done yet.”
The task at hand won’t be one that will be easy to handle. The opponent for the Gusties (24-6) is third-ranked Thomas More, which owns a 28-1 record and a 27-game winning streak.
Coach Laurie Kelly reminds her team that anything is possible in the tournament.
“The best teams don’t always win. You can play a team that is supposed to beat you nine out of 10 times, but you only need to beat them that one time,” Kelly said. “It’s about being focused for 40 minutes. A lot of people didn’t think we would beat Whitewater at Whitewater and we did. I keep saying why not us.”
As important as it is for her team to prepare like crazy for perhaps its biggest challenge of the season, she also wants her players to enjoy the journey. Kelly knows first-hand how special the tournament is.
As a player at St. Thomas, she won a national championship with the Tommies and she is considered one of the greatest players in NCAA Division III history.
“We’re really trying to enjoy the experience,” Kelly said. “We won a national championship and my coach told us during the tournament to make sure we enjoy the moments. We’ve tried to take that approach here. We’re working hard and preparing but we’re also really trying to savor each day we have to be together and be in the gym.”
Miller is savoring every moment. Make no mistake about that.
This tournament has been special in more ways than one, particularly on Saturday, when she accomplished something that will be remembered forever.
With 21 points against the Warhawks, including a 3-pointer before halftime that gave her the record, Miller became the all-time leading scorer program history.
Her career total stands at 1,792. The old mark was 1,779.
Not bad for a player who almost walked away from the sport.
“It was a really cool feeling, but at the same time, it’s not something I said I needed to do in my career. It just kind of happened,” Miller said. “I am super happy about it, but I know I wouldn’t have been able to achieve it without having great teammates.”
The accomplishment is one Miller will appreciate more down the road.
“It’s going to be cool to look back in 10-15 years and see my name with that record,” Miller said. “But like everything in my senior year, right now it’s bittersweet, and at the same time an unbelievable feeling to have accomplished it.”
Kelly isn’t surprised Miller has become the player she is today. She’s always seen the potential in her.
“I knew she was a player we could build a program around, and we have brought in great players to put around her,” Kelly said. “They have all elevated their games.”
Miranda Rice has been particularly key to the success of the Gusties. The senior post player leads the team in scoring (17.1 points per game). Miller is second (16.7).
“To have Miranda on the outside and Mikayla on the outside, that combination has been key for us,” Kelly said. “When those two play well, our team does well.”
Miller has drilled 62 3-pointers, the most on the team, and she is in the midst of leading the MIAC in steals for the third consecutive season, tallying 73 on the year.
“Mikayla is a fun player to coach. She is extremely competitive, a very powerful guard and can score from the 3-point line or inside,” Kelly said. “She’s very versatile.”
Miller made her presence felt right out of the gate as a freshman, leading the Gusties in scoring at 17.2 points per outing and earning a spot on the MIAC all-rookie team. She’s been an all-conference standout every season and was a D3hoops.com All-West Region second team selection last year.
Miller credits her success, in part, to the older players she played with as a freshman.
“I was around great leaders and I wouldn’t have become the player I am today without them,” Miller said.
She also points to those who impacted her game as she grew up.
“It goes back to when I was a little kid, when my parents would play with me and to the coaches who gave the time and effort to help me become a better basketball player,” Miller said. “I also have great teammates. We work well together and we are like a family on and off the court.”
Playing as a team will be vital to pulling off an upset of the Saints, who average 87.1 points per game, 20 more points per outing than the Gusties do.
“We know when we play Gustie basketball that we are a tough team to beat,” Miller said. “We have to be able to slow them down and get quality shots.”
Two more wins this weekend means Gustavus will get an opportunity to play the final four in its home state, the Mayo Civic Center in Rochester serving as the site for the national semifinals and championship game.
That opportunity would mean a lot to Kelly because Rochester is her hometown.
“The Mayo Civic Center is where my high school career ended, and I think we’ve all had it in the back of our minds that we could get an opportunity to play here. We’re excited and our mentality going into the weekend is to work hard, play the best that we can and see what happens. Everything from here on out is icing on the cake.”