Notebook: Xavier’s Miller proud of effort
PHOENIX — There has been very little time for Xavier coach Sean Miller to catch his breath.
The Beaver County native’s third-seeded and 12th-ranked Musketeers, fresh from a 79-75 overtime victory over seventh-seeded West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament West Region semifinals, will try to lead Xavier to its first Final Four berth tonight with a win over former Pitt coach Ben Howland and No. 3 UCLA.
“Our team showed why we had won 29 games coming in and now have won our 30th,” Miller said after watching B.J. Raymond score all eight of his points in overtime, including a pair of 3-point shots, to help Xavier overcome a six-point deficit in the extra period.
“This group of kids is very resilient,” he said. “Our team kept fighting, when so many other teams or a weaker team could have easily cashed it in as West Virginia got that big lead.”
Miller directed Xavier to a thrilling come-from-behind win Thursday night against an old coaching acquaintance, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, the former man in charge at crosstown rival Cincinnati. Miller and Huggins had faced each other frequently, when Miller was both a coach and an associate coach at Xavier.
Tonight, Miller will be going against another familiar face, when Xavier (30-6) meets top-seeded UCLA (34-3) and its coach, Howland, the former Pitt mentor who started the Panthers on their current streak of seven NCAA Tournament appearances.
Howland directed UCLA to an 88-78 victory over 12th-seeded Western Kentucky in Thursday’s other West Region semifinal. With the NCAA Tournament pace picking up, Howland expressed similar sentiments to that of Miller.
“Against teams at this level … you’re not going to see blowouts,” Howland said, though top-ranked North Carolina’s 21-point victory over No. 21 Washington State in the East Region semifinals Thursday night would indicate otherwise.
Don’t I know you?
Howland knows his Bruins are likely to face perhaps their stiffest test of the tournament against Miller’s Musketeers, and he said he’s not surprised.
“I know Sean Miller because he is a graduate of Pitt,” Howland said. “I knew his father (John), when I was at Pitt and he was the head coach at Blackhawk High School. And Sean is a great guy.
“We have a mutual friend who we’re both very close to,” Howland said, referring to Pitt team trainer Tony Salesi, whom Howland called “one of my best friends in the world.”
Howland, who is attempting to get UCLA into its third consecutive Final Four, said it became a three-way call of sorts involving Salesi and the two coaches.
“I think it was Sunday that I called Tony and someone called me and I called him back,” Howland said. “Sean was just on the phone with him. Sean, who was a great point guard at Pitt has worked for some great coaches along the way.”
There’s no telling what Miller has in store for Howland’s team, the UCLA coach said.
“They’re very, very well-coached. They’re very, very sound. They play great man-to-man defense,” Howland said. “We’ve got our hands full. We understand that.”
When Huggins took over at West Virginia following the departure of John Beilein as coach, he didn’t know what to expect. Neither did the players, most of whom were recruited by Beilein, now the coach at Michigan.
But West Virginia, despite bowing out of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night, surpassed just about everyone’s wildest dreams. Two seniors — guard Darris Nichols and center Jamie Smalligan — were playing in their final college game.
“This group is like a family. I’m going to miss these guys,” said the 7-foot Smalligan, a native of East Grand Rapids, Mich. “Hopefully, we, the seniors, helped build something and the next group can just continue to do some things that are even better than what we did.”