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Miller's moment comes at right time

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2000


WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.- This is where stardom begins. This is when legend takes hold.

It starts with a baby-faced forward going one-on-everyone, charging toward the basket like something out of Braveheart. It starts with him wanting the ball, all but demanding it, when a season was down to four heartbeats. It starts with him taking on a stubborn opponent and a dying clock and unrealistic expectations and weaving all of it into an unforgettable moment.

For Mike Miller, for the Florida Gators, let history note the greatness began Friday afternoon with a soft, sprawling shot that dropped gently through a net.

Because of it, a season continues. Because of it, perhaps, a star was born.

That, only that, was what Miller accomplished in the final seconds of a 69-68 overtime victory against Butler. He hit arguably the biggest shot in Gators' history. He turned a loss into a victory. And, at last, he measured up to the expectations that have followed him since his arrival at Florida.

This is how special players introduce themselves, by making crucial plays in the crucial moments of crucial games. For such players -- and for some time, Miller has born the mark -- such a moment can be considered a rite of passage. You can be very good in forgettable moments, but it takes a play such as this to be considered great.

It is easy to convince yourself that Miller, the 6-8, 218-pound sophomore forward, passed an initiation of sorts in the final seconds. Consider the situation. For the Gators, it was four seconds to closing time. Four more ticks of the clock, and the Gators were going home, pausing every so often to ask of each other: "Butler?"

But then the ball was in Miller's hands, and he was moving to his right. He cut through the lane, half reckless, half relentless. He split LaVall Jordan and Joel Cornette, then rose up over guard Thomas Jackson. The ball left his hands with three-tenths of a second remaining, barely evading the fingertips of Scott Robisch. It hit the front of the rim just as the red light flashed, signaling the end of the game, then dropped through.

For so long, this is the type of play the Gators have pleaded with Miller to make, the type of situation in which they begged him to take over. He is their best player and, as such, the eyes turn to him at such moments. Ah, but people forget he is but a sophomore, and he still tends to squint in the brightness of the lights. To this point, Miller has been reluctant to embrace stardom, as if he might be rushing things.

No more. In the final moments, Miller wanted the ball desperately. Florida coach Billy Donovan talks of the label of hero and goat, and how the worst thing a player can do is seek the safety between the two. The truly great players lust for the opportunity more than they fear the label. This time, Miller did, too.

"I decided in my mind I wanted us to lose the game because of me, or I wanted us to win the game because of me," he said. "The play isn't really designed for me, but I don't think Ted (Dupay) had much of a choice. I kind of ran toward the ball. I kind of took it from him."

Miller looked up and grinned. Other games, he might not have been so aggressive in getting the ball. And once he did, he might not have been so aggressive afterward. Donovan is blunt when he talks about the poor choices Miller has made at the end of games -- the bad pass against DePaul, a three-point attempt against Tennessee instead of driving to the basket.

In other games, perhaps Miller would set his shoulders and launched a jump shot once he got the ball. Not this time. He put the ball on the floor and drove.

"I heard Coach's voice in my head," Miller said. "He was yelling "Don't settle, don't settle.' It drives him crazy when we settle and shoot a jumper instead of driving. You don't always want to go one-on-four, but it worked."

This is what stardom feels like. This is what they mean by joy.

If the world had just been on Miller's shoulders, now it was on his chest. Also, Dupay. And Kenyan Weaks and Matt Bonner and Brent Nelson and everyone else who could fit. Miller lay on his back, grinning, yelling, trusting the reaction to tell him the ball had indeed gone through the basket, that the season still had a pulse.

Just like that, the rest of the game was forgotten. For so long, it appeared the Gators were going to be a victim of a St. Patrick's Day massacre. Butler dictated pace, and the Gators were sloppy on offense, and on defense they couldn't protect the boards. To be honest, if not for a couple of ragged calls near the end of regulation, the Gators might not have been around for Miller's heroics.

Oh, Miller still will tell you that he isn't trying to prove that he can step up at a time like this. But being willing to is something else indeed.

"Maybe I need to do this more often," he said. "If that's what it takes, I'm willing."'

For a special player, it is the accepting of such responsibility that marks the coming of age. For Miller, 20, it is easy to believe this will be a defining moment. When he becomes what most of us believe he will become, this is the game, the moment, the shot, we all will look back upon.

This was where it started. This was when he arrived.

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