Reggie Miller Ready to Win for Abilene Christian in NCAA Tournament

Reggie Miller started lighting candles around his apartment, as his Abilene Christian teammates huddled together trying to keep warm. At a given time, eight-to-ten players stayed with Miller. The room was dark, dimly lit with candlelight. No water ran from the sink; there. were no sounds from the oven cooking food; no tapping on phones, texting friends and family. 

Abilene Christian Looks to Secure Tournament Win Behind Reggie Miller

The power is out and there’s no water. It’s the beginning of February and Miller’s experience is nothing new in the state of Texas. Three winter storms swept across the state, resulting in 4.5 million homes and businesses without power. The lack of electricity resulted in water, food, and heat shortages. According to the Texas Health Department, 57 people died due to the winter storm, with most of the deaths connected to hypothermia. 

While the power stayed off, Miller and his teammates stuck together. To pass the time, they played rounds of ‘Categories’ while exchanging stories with each other. As Miller reflects on this experience in Indianapolis, preparing for Abilene Christian University’s first-round matchup against the University of Texas in the NCAA Tournament, it was another example of the team conquering adversity. 

“I think the adversity we faced at that time was firsthand,” Miller said when speaking on the Texas winter storm. “For all of us to face this at the same time and to be together throughout it, it made us come closer.

It was any normal day for Reggie Miller. He traveled to practice, preparing for the semifinals of the Southland Conference Tournament. The Wildcats posted a 20-11 record, poised to make their second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.  

This day, of course, was March 12, 2020. The events of the previous day caught Miller’s attention. The WHO declaring the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19. The NBA suspended its season. 

A normal Thursday would turn abnormal in a heartbeat. When Miller arrived at practice, the team received notice about the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. 

Abilene Christian’s season was over.

While missing out on a chance to compete in the March Madness hurt Miller, he never lost motivation. Success and winning define the senior guard’s vast journey. Playing at Klein Forest high school in his hometown of Houston, TX, Miller earned All-Region First Team honours. Miller attended Seward County Community College, where he helped his team win the Region VI Championship in the NJCAA tournament. 

Simply put, Miller is a bonafide winner. When he decided to play at Abilene Christian, Miller brought his winning mentality to a program looking to ascend in the D-I ranks. 

“He’s an incredible leader,” said Wildcats head coach Joe Golding. “He’s a special dude. One of the toughest kids pound for pound I’ve ever coached. He’s the heartbeat and soul of our team. The kid is a winner,”

“He took me under his wing day one,” said Wildcats freshman Logan McLaughlin. “I came in with a brace on my knee so I couldn’t work out. I was walking around practice but he’s always chirping in my ear to stay locked in and to pay attention. He’s a great mentor in keeping me locked in, keeping me on my toes, and making me a better player.” 

Building Relationships

When the Wildcats arrived at its first summer meeting, juniors and seniors populated the team. These were guys who went to the NCAA Tournament in 2019, the first appearance in school history as a D-I program. 

While the team’s excitement level was high heading into the 2020-21 college basketball season, the COVID-19 pandemic persisted. The weekly testing, following the health and safety protocols, all became a part of everyday life for the Wildcats. The adversity continued throughout the season, with games getting postponed due to COVID-19 issues. 

Then, the winter storm in February. With no electricity, the team couldn’t practice for days. There was no water for the guys to drink and to shower. Abilene Christian did its part in ensuring some rooms had the electricity turned on and kept the cafeteria open for longer hours. Coaches made food runs for players, while many stayed at homes off-campus, like Miller’s.

 “When things happen, people have to jump in and help each other,” Golding said. “We got real relationships in this program. Our guys really like each other, they play for each other, and our staff likes our players. There’s more to this than wins and losses.” 

Facing Adversity

No matter the difficulty thrown its way, the Wildcats responded. It’s a testament to Golding’s culture he’s built for the program, inspiring his players to believe in each other.

“The biggest thing is we’ve got a bunch of kids in our program that haven’t left and gone to other schools,” Golding said. “They’ve stuck with us through the process and grown through our program and developed.” 

Golding points to two non-conference games where the Wildcats clicked. Against Texas Tech on December 9th, the Wildcats battled the Red Raiders to the very end, losing by seven 51-44. Two weeks later against Arkansas, the Wildcats had chances to win down the stretch, losing another close game, 85-72. 

Those two contests, despite resulting in losses, demonstrated Abilene Christian’s ability to not let top-ranked teams intimidate them.  

 “That was a statement in our season,” Miller said. “We said, ‘Let’s do something. We might be really good so let’s lock in.’ We don’t try and focus on our opponent. If we go out there and do everything we can to the best of our ability, we have a good chance at the end of the day.”  

In Southland Conference play, the Wildcats only lost twice. In the Southland Tournament Championship, the Wildcats defeated the number one seed Nicholls by 34 points (79-45). Miller posted a double-double 11 points and 10 rebounds, playing a team-high 33 minutes. 

When the Wildcats qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 2019, they were happy to be there. As Golding says, it was “a vacation.” Now, the mindset is different as the Wildcats prepare to take on the third seed University of Texas, the flagship school in the state. The tournament looks and feels different, with the protocols and the bubble environment. But for Golding and his team, it’s a reality they’ve been accustomed to since last summer. 

Everything is Bigger in Texas 

For two Texas schools going up against each other, it’s an opportunity to provide some solace for Texan citizens, looking for a distraction from the pandemic and the aftermath of the winter storm.  

“When you’re Abilene Christian and have been a D-II school for 50 years, you’re still in the early transition of D-I and you’re playing the University of Texas on the biggest stage in college basketball, it’s a cool opportunity,” Golding said. “This is what our country needs. I just think it’s going to be a great three or four weeks across our country to get back to some type of normalcy.”

Miller thinks back to those days without power, huddled in his apartment with his teammates, candles lit, playing ‘Challenges,’ exchanging stories. The team developed a tight bond in those powerless days that will be apparent as the Wildcats look to dictate its defensive style of play against the Longhorns (Abilene Christian leads the nation in forced turnovers per possession, inducing a 26.7% giveaway rate). 

Miller’s leadership is a part of his legacy at Abilene Christian. But the senior is hungry for more. 

“The thing I really care about is winning so I feel like that’d be the best legacy you leave behind. All the greats in sports are known for their accomplishments. Winning is the biggest accomplishment for me. If I can win as much as I can, that’s the biggest legacy I can leave behind.” 

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