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

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

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

Miller missed his first three shots Saturday and didn’t make his first field goal of the tournament until 6:44 remaining in the first half. The five-star freshman came into the game battling a lingering groin injury he suffered 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 multiple reports placed him at roughly 80% health heading into Satuday’s matchup, Miller downplayed the injury following the game.

“I’m 100%,” Miller said. “It’s just a preparation. Me and [team trainer] Clarke [Holter] prepped for this game physical wise. That’s the biggest thing, just preparation coming into the game.”

Alabama head coach Nate Oats said his star forward was 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 definitely wasn’t 100%. He’s going to tell you he’s 100%. He’s a tough kid. He’s going to play through some stuff and not let people on as to how much he’s hurt. Him and Clarke spent a lot of time together over the last 48 hours.

“Give him a lot of credit. He was going to go. There was no question ever about whether he was going to go or not.”

Miller saw the court for 34 minutes Saturday, a little over his season average of 32.7. Despite leading Alabama in scoring, he struggled to find his shot at time, shooting 5 of 17 from the floor and 2 of 6 from deep.

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

He’s biggest moment of the game came during a second-half sequence that saw him swat away a layup attempt from Maryland’s Jahmir Young before nailing a transition 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 felt great just being out there,” Miller said. “It’s just a blessing being out there. I think growing up as a kid, for all kids it’s a dream for them to be here. It’s just a blessing to be here and compete with my team.”

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

“He’s a warrior,” senior guard Jahvon Quinerly said. “I don’t really know where he’s at right now health-wise, but just to not shoot the ball so well and still end up with 19 points, when you see that consistently from kids, it shows they are a true professional.”

While Miller showed improvement from his first-round performance, he still has a ways to go to get back to firing on all gears. Quinerly believes that’s the most promising part of Saturday’s showing.

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

Miller will have five days to further recover from his injury as Alabama (31-5) is set to face No. 5 seed San Diego State (29-6) on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky for the Sweet 16. Following Saturday’s game, Oats said the team will rest Miller has needed, stating it will be “fine” if he has to hold the forward out of a few practices next week.

“I think it’s just about us being focused,” Miller said. “This was a great win tonight. I think we’re gonna come in tomorrow and probably get our bodies back together and just start from the basics to prepare for San Diego State.”