Danae Miller hears the clock ticking to what she calls “the quickest four years of my life.”
The senior point guard has already logged a staggering 2,388 minutes for the UCSB women’s basketball team — an average of 30.2 per game. But no time was more crucial than the final second of the last minute of what turned out to be the last game of last season.
“We may think who we want to have the ball at the end of the game,” coach Bonnie Henrickson said of last year’s regular-season finale at Hawaii, “but it’s better when they know.”
She took the basketball from Johnni Gonzalez, drove to the baseline, leaned away from Hawaii’s best defender and let her 12-footer fly with 0.2 seconds on the clock. The buzzer had sounded by the time her jumper nestled through the net to give UCSB a 57-56 victory and the No. 2 seed for the Big West Conference Tournament.
“It takes a lot of confidence to take that shot … and live with the consequences,” Henrickson observed.
It wasn’t the first time the 5-foot-7, psychology and brain sciences major had shouldered such a burden. She made go-ahead shots near the end of prior games against Grand Canyon and Cal Baptist, only to have those teams answer with buzzer-beating baskets.
This time, she gave her opponent no time to reply.
“When I was a freshman, I was really nervous throughout every game,” conceded Miller, who was just 18 and fresh out of Long Beach Poly when she was thrust into a starting role at UCSB. “I don’t think I would’ve had enough confidence back then to take on that player, one-on-one, and make that shot.
“Over the years, Bonnie has instilled into me, ‘You’ve got to be the one who makes the big plays, to be the playmaker,’ and that’s given me all the confidence I need.”
She took on more responsibility during the offseason when she agreed to serve as the Big West representative on the NCAA’s newly formed Division 1 Women’s Basketball Student-Athlete Engagement Group. Its mission is to serve as “an amplifying voice for women’s basketball on key initiatives, legislation and various issues.”
“I felt it was important — that we have a word on what’s going on in our own seasons,” Miller said. “I appreciate the NCAA even making this a thing. During this time, with a pandemic going on and people still wanting to play — and others wanting to opt out — it’s big to be able to put our concerns out there.”
The Gauchos were eating breakfast at their Anaheim hotel on the eve of last March’s Big West Tournament when they learned that the event was being canceled because of the coronavirus. Her shot at Hawaii had earned UCSB a double-bye into the Big West semifinals, leaving it just two wins away from an NCAA Tournament berth.
“Man, I tell you, we were livid as a team,” she said. “To work that hard to get second place and that double-bye, and feeling that we had a good run going, and to be eating breakfast and all of a sudden get told that we were about to go back home … We were all like, ‘Are you kidding?’
“It was rough. I felt so bad for Coco (Miller) and Tal (Sahar). This was their senior run. Health comes first, of course, but it definitely motivated us for this year. As soon as we got home, we were playing on outdoor courts.”
Miller, a two-time All-Big West selection, is giving UCSB high hopes for another big season. She used her lightning quickness, quick-wittedness and feathery shot to rank second in the league in assist average (4.0) and 10th in scoring average (13.3 points) last year.
Henrickson will arrive at the Thunderdome for practice and often find Miller already there, “the first one in the gym, shooting at the basket on the far end.”
“She’s a very bright and wise young lady who’s constantly thinking about what the future holds,” Henrickson said. “She’s thoughtful and articulate with a lot that’s going on right now. There’s a real maturity about her.”
And that has never come into play more than now, with two highly rated guards coming into UCSB’s program. When COVID-19 protocol forced Henrickson to separate her players into small practice groups, she put freshmen Anya Choice of Cardinal Newman High and Alyssa Marin of Camarillo High into Miller’s pod.
“I knew Danae had to be with them, showing them the pace and intensity, and the proper footwork,” she said. “She’s very fundamental and understands what we’re doing. Her reps are really good when they’re watching her.
“She sets the tone and is a great example for them. Danae has such a good voice and is a great leader verbally, and she also leads by example.”
Miller expects the two newcomers to play important roles when UCSB opens its season at the University of San Diego on Nov. 28.
“I can tell why they were chosen to come here,” she said. “Alyssa is a great point guard and Anya is showing that she’ll be a great scorer for us. I see flashes of that all the time.
“They have to learn a lot of terminology and the way we play, and they’re taking that all in. I think it’s going to be a pretty good first year for them. I’m just trying to give them little cues — tell them when they’re doing the right things and helping them with the little fixes.”
Miller won the CIF State Open Division championship as a freshman at Long Beach Poly and the CIF-Southern Section Open Division title as a senior. She’d like to go out a winner at UCSB, as well.
“That’s definitely on my mind,” she said. “We worked so hard for that last year. Getting so close to it last year, when our whole locker room was so motivated … It was ridiculous how everyone was on the same page.
“We’re buying into that system again now. We’re ready to take it all the way.”
She’s ready to take her last, best shot at it.