GREENVILLE, S.C. – As Diamond Miller sat on Maryland’s bench on Nov. 11 inside the Xfinity Center in College Park, she was exhausted by her anxiety. With every possession, and with every point South Carolina scored, thoughts ran through her head about how things would have been different if she were able to play.
Instead, she was dealing with a minor knee injury that kept her from the home opener of her senior year.
“I knew I couldn’t have gone in at that time, but I was just very anxious when I was watching and was like, ‘Put me in!’ I always want to play and try to help my team,” Miller told The Baltimore Banner on Sunday. “That’s why I was so anxious. I was like, ‘Oh, I can help with this, with that.’”
Without Miller that day in November, South Carolina comfortably beat the Terrapins 81-56.
On Monday, Miller doesn’t plan to spend much time on the bench for the Terps’ Elite Eight rematch with the top-seeded Gamecocks at 7 p.m. inside Bon Secours Wellness Arena in upstate South Carolina.
At stake is a trip to the Final Four, which would be Maryland’s first since 2015. But standing in the Terps’ way is the current behemoth in women’s college basketball.
The Terps are eager for the challenge. Especially Miller. The All-American has no intention of wondering “What if?” after this game.
“It’s just exciting. For some reason, God was like, ‘You’re going to play this game,’ ” Miller said. “I’m just grateful I get the opportunity to play this time.”
Maryland is certainly not a David. The Terrapins are 28-6, in the Elite Eight, entered the NCAA Tournament ranked seventh in the AP Top 25 Poll, and have one of the best offenses in the nation.
But South Carolina very much is a Goliath. The Gamecocks are undefeated, playing for their third consecutive regional title, have been ranked No. 1 all season long, and have the nation’s best-rated offense and defense.
Any team that faces South Carolina is an underdog. And if the Gamecocks lose between now and April 2 — the day of the national championship game in Dallas — it will be classified as nothing less than an immense and historic upset.
If Maryland is going to be the team to deal an unlikely defeat to South Carolina, it will almost certainly need a massive performance from its star, Miller.
“Diamond is a big x-factor. She’s the person we gravitate to,” Maryland freshman Bri McDaniel said. “Once we see that she’s going and she’s got her head down and ready to go, we know we got to be there with her.”
Miller has been a headliner for the Terps from the very beginning. She was tabbed by ESPN as the 17th-best recruit in her 2019 class coming out of Franklin High School in Somerset, N.J., and was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year. After averaging 7.7 points per game in a modest role as a freshman, she blossomed into a leader as a sophomore, earning All-Big Ten First Team honors along with being named Co-MVP of the Big Ten Tournament en route to helping Maryland win the conference crown.
As a junior, even as she battled that knee injury which forced her to miss 10 games, she led Maryland to crucial victories over Baylor, Indiana and Iowa, and NCAA Tournament wins over Delaware and Florida Gulf Coast.
And then, shortly before undergoing offseason knee surgery, much of Miller’s supporting cast seemed to vanish. Katie Benzan and Chloe Bibby exhausted their eligibility. Fellow All-Americans in Angel Reese and Ashley Owusu transferred, landing respectively at LSU and Virginia, and key role player Mimi Collins transferred too, latching on at North Carolina State.
Miller chose to stay, which allowed Maryland head coach Brenda Frese to build around her and fellow returners like Shyanne Sellers and Faith Masonius.
“I think you see, as an example from Diamond, when you put your head down and you trust the process, that great things can occur,” Frese said. “And obviously Diamond is so talented, she’s going to impact any program she’s a part of. But I think it’s important to note the face of our program, the loyalty of those four years.”
With new faces all around her, Miller turned in her best season ever as a Terp, averaging 19.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 47.3% from the floor. She leads Maryland in scoring, rebounding, free throws made, steals and blocks.
“She can score it at any time. She’s a willing passer. She’s a leader,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said of Miller. “She’s a player that can score in bunches and impact the game on both sides of the basketball.”
South Carolina has its own star who was a 2019 recruit, too. Her name is Aliyah Boston and she’s the reigning consensus National Player of the Year. The 6-foot-5 senior forward is likely to be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming WNBA Draft, and she’s the engine that makes South Carolina go.
Boston averages 12.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. While those numbers aren’t eye-popping, she is the only player in the country who ranks in the top seven of offensive and defensive rating, according to HerHoopStats.
And Boston has a great deal of respect for Miller.
“Diamond helps them a lot. She likes to get out in transition. She’s long and strong and can play a lot of different positions that they need her to,” Boston said. “So, she really just opens up the floor a lot more.”
All season long, the Terps have felt like they’ve been underestimated and overlooked. They weren’t favored in non-conference clashes with Baylor, Notre Dame and UConn. But Maryland won those games, and Frese and the players believe they can win this one, too.
“We’re going to want to use our speed, and we want to get up and down,” Frese said. “Anything can happen. We’ve got to make shots, and we’ve got to be able to get stops and keep them off the glass.”
For Miller, her focus isn’t on showing the naysayers that they were wrong.
“I don’t care what people are saying right now,” Miller said. “We’re just here to have fun and prove everybody right in this locker room, prove that we could do this.”
Mitchell Northam is a journalist based in North Carolina. His work has appeared in USA TODAY, Sports Illustrated and SB Nation, and he is the author of the book “High School Basketball on Maryland’s Eastern Shore: A Shore Hoops History.”