She couldn’t figure out why her coach kept yelling her name:
Wright State was setting up its defense against perennial nemesis Green Bay on Thursday night at the Nutter Center and junior guard Michal Miller said Katrina Merriweather was on the sidelines frantically calling her name.
“I walked over to her and said, ‘Why are you yelling my name like that?’” Miller said. “She said, ‘I just wanted you to go, go, go.’
“I figured the rivalry was in her head, too, and I said, ‘Coach, just relax. We’re OK. We got this.’”
Those are words the WSU women rarely – if ever – have uttered in the 39 years they’ve been playing the Phoenix.
Relax? We’re OK? We got this?
Coming into Thursday’s game, the Raiders had lost 62 of 66 games against Green Bay. They’d won just once in the past 36 and had lost 10 straight, including the Horizon League Tournament championship last March in Detroit when the Phoenix shoved them around, won by 18 and once again denied them a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday night was completely different
Wright State led Green Bay – which already this season had routed Dayton by 16 and beaten Wisconsin and No. 16 Missouri – almost the entire game, pushed the margin to 22 and then coasted to an 85-67 victory.
So what was different this time?
One thing was Miller, a transfer from Arizona by way of Trinity Valley Community College in Texas. She had 16 points.
Another was Imani Partlow, a 6-foot-1 grad student transfer from Xavier, who played in 79 games for the Musketeers. She had 12 rebounds and 10 points.
And there was senior sharpshooter Mackenzie Taylor, who was left battered, in tears and with just five points in that last game with Green Bay. She led all scorers Thursday with 18 points.
“It seems like every year it comes down to a game with them and a lot of times we’ve been hesitant to play that game,” Taylor said. “We weren’t this year. I feel like we have their number right now.
“But we’re sure we’ll see them a couple more times this season and we know they’ll scout us better and prepare better.
“But we will, too. We’re the most talented we’ve ever been since I’ve been here.”
Leading that talent surge is Miller, who Merriweather described Thursday, as “the most skilled player we’ve ever had here.”
Considering in recent years the program has had Kim Demmings, Tay’ler Mingo and Chelsea Welch – all Horizon League Players of the Year – that’s a mouthful.
Demmings is in the WSU Hall of Fame. Mingo and Welch are both playing professionally in Europe. And Mingo and Demmings combined for 57 points to lead WSU to its greatest win over Green Bay, a 2014 triumph in the league’s tournament championship that put the Raiders into the NCAA Tournament the only time in program history.
As for Miller, Merriweather said: “She’s a triple threat on offense. And she’s long and rangy defensively. She’s just a really, really complete player.”
One thing that was incomplete Thursday night was her historical perspective.
“I didn’t know that much of the past,” she admitted. “I don’t know what the rivalry is, except that the last time (WSU) beat them was a while ago. None of that bothered me.”
Then dropping her voice to a whisper, she added: “It wasn’t like ‘Oh…my…God!’”
As Merriweather noted: “When you have transfer players from Power 5 teams, they respect people, but they don’t have much fear. And especially Michal, she’s fearless no matter who we’re playing.”
Miller agreed that she’s faced plenty of tough challenges before, but she wasn’t just talking about playing at Arizona against the likes of Stanford and UCLA.
“I’m the youngest of 13 kids,” she said. “My twin brother Michael – he plays at North Texas now – he was born just before me, but he’d always play with my older brothers. When I tried to play with them, I just got beat up…I had to learn to hang in there.”
Her basketball resume tells you she did, but it doesn’t reveal you just how much she continues to hang tough.
Hint of that came on her Twitter account before the game. That’s where she wrote:
“It hurts to walk.”
A good fit
Growing up in Michigan City, Indiana, Michal said she learned to shoot from outside so she could play with her older brothers. She went on to star at Michigan City High and with the prestigious Baylor Youth Foundation program run by Toi Baylor.
“I knew of Michal from summer ball,” Merriweather said. “But back then it was Power 5 everybody after her and it was really tough to even attempt to get in and I didn’t talk to her.
“But when she went to Arizona, Coach Bradbury (then WSU head coach Mike Bradbury) and I watched to see if she was playing and thought ‘maybe she will transfer.’”
Miller played limited minutes as a freshman in the 2015-16 season, returned to Arizona briefly as a sophomore, then left and last season played for Trinity Valley.
“I finally called Toi Baylor, but I was scared to death because of all the stories you hear,” Merriweather said. “She’s known as a real fighter for her kids and if you don’t treat them right, you’ll never get another kid from that area. It could be summer ball suicide.
“But we got on the phone and talked for an hour and a half until she kind of understood what we’re doing here.”
Merriweather next spoke to Miller:
“If the most important thing to her was 5,000 fans and 80 pairs of sweat suits, we weren’t the program for her. We’re about a family environment and looking after you.
“When I asked her what was the No. 1 thing she was looking for, she said, ‘A good relationship with the head coach.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I can do that.’”
Even so, Miller was concerned about joining a team led by three senior starters, Taylor, Emily Vogelpohl and Symone Simmons.
“They could have looked at me as a threat, like ‘Aah man, she’s gonna come in here a take my spot,’” Miller said. “But I’ve never felt this wanted before.”
Merriweather said: “Michal’s not one of those transfers who thinks she’s the best thing since sliced bread and nobody ends up liking them because they’re so arrogant. She’s just the opposite.”
What further won over the other players was them seeing what Miller has to do just to get on the court. She has a chronic foot problem that first showed up at Arizona and was finally diagnosed in junior college.
“It’s called tarsal coalition,” she explained. “It’s two tarsal bones in my left foot that have grown together and it causes my arch to collapse and gives me Achilles tendinitis. It’s painful and causes my foot, my knees and lower back to hurt, too.”
Her other foot is hampered by an old ligament tear.
“Some days I can’t even walk in the morning,” she said. “The training staff works with me here and I wear a boot all around campus, although lately it’s been messing up my hips.”
To help, Merriweather tries to limit Miller’s reps in practice and keep her from playing long spurts in games. That’s why she continually subs her in and out.
Playing just 18 minutes Thursday, Miller made four of six three pointers and once did a shake-and-bake move that left her Green Bay defender sprawled on the court.
After the victory, the WSU players ran back to their dressing room cheering.
And once Merriweather joined them, the revelry got even louder.
Michal Miller had been right:
“Relax. We’re OK. We got this.”