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Men's Basketball: Miller's shining moment comes amid season of sacrifice

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, March 9, 2018


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Justin Miller (3) of the Cajuns, shown working under the basket in UL's 80-54 Sun Belt Tournament quarterfinal victory over Texas State, scored 14 points off the bench Friday. (Photo: Sun Belt Conference)

NEW ORLEANS — He started 31-of-33 games for UL as a true freshman last season.

But Justin Miller sacrificed this season, accepting without complaining a reserve role in the shadow of JaKeenan Gant — the Sun Belt Conference Newcomer of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year — during Gant’s first year on the court for the Ragin’ Cajuns after transferring from Missouri.

With Gant ill on Friday, however, Miller took advantage of the opportunity and enjoyed one huge shining moment as the 27-5 Cajuns took a big step forward on a path they hope will lead to the NCAA Tournament.

Miller had 14 points off the bench to help lead No. 1 seed UL to an 80-54 win over No. 9 seed Texas State in a Sun Belt Tournament quarterfinal-round game at Lakefront Arena here.

More: UL freshman starter Miller faced 'so much adversity'

With the win, the Cajuns advance to play No. 4 seed Texas-Arlington — which beat No. 5 seed Appalachian State 84-68 Friday afternoon — in a semifinal game at 11:30 a.m. Saturday.

“It’s a great thing to have when you have a big-time scorer come off the bench,” said starting shooting guard Frank Bartley IV, who led UL with a team-high 23 points in the blowout victory.

“Justin started for us last year, and he took the role to come off the bench,” Bartley added, “but he still has the same attitude to come in and make plays and score the ball for us.”

More: Sun Belt Basketball Championship scoreboard

Frank Bartley IV puts up a shot Friday in UL's 80-54 win over Texas State in the quarterfinal round of the Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans. He finished with 23 points for the Cajuns.

Frank Bartley IV puts up a shot Friday in UL's 80-54 win over Texas State in the quarterfinal round of the Sun Belt Tournament in New Orleans. He finished with 23 points for the Cajuns.  (Photo: Sun Belt Conference)

Miller wasn’t the only Cajun sub pouring in points Friday, though.

Sporadically used Jerekius Davis added 11 on 5-for-8 field shooting, and Cedric Russell had nine while shooting 3-for-4 from 3-point range.

“We feel like we’ve got the deepest bench in the league,” UL coach Bob Marlin said, “and we knew that we would need them.

“JaKeenan (Gant) has been under the weather the last couple days and couldn’t go, and we had guys step up.

“We have a lot of faith in our bench,” Marlin added. “We can play big; we can play small. We’re versatile, and ‘we’re gonna need that the rest of the tournament’ is what I just told the guys.”

Related: Marlin named Coach of the Year; three Cajuns named to all-Sun Belt Team

With 14.7-points-per-game-scoring Gant playing only the game’s first three minutes, Miller — who started in his place to open the second half — logged 18 minutes.

He scored 11 of his 14 before the break, helping UL quickly break open what was a close one early on and take a comfy 37-15 lead into halftime.

Miller finished 4-for-6 from 3-point range, including 3-of-5 in the decisive first half.

“He has the green light,” Marlin said of Miller, a 6-foot-7, 250-pounder from Beaver Dam, Kentucky.

“I’ve always liked my big guys to step out and shoot 3s, because I feel like post players are lazy defensively at times. I’d rather have an open 3 from a guy like (ex-Cajun) Shawn Long, who made 100 for me, or Justin, than a contested one with a really good player.

“But I have confidence in (Miller) that he can step out and shoot the 3. It was a good effort by him,” the Cajuns coach added. “When he makes one he’s gonna look to get another one; he can score in a hurry.”

Related: UL's Marlin says 'It was good ... to take a punch'

Miller averaged 11.1 points and 23.9 minutes per game last season.

With Gant eating up much playing time, and Miller coming off the bench in 30 of his 32 games, the sophomore is averaging only 13.3 minutes and 6.8 points this season.

The reduced role, though, is one he’s OK with if it helps the Cajuns get to the place Miller really wants to be most.

The NCAA Tournament, that is.

“Whatever I have to do for the team to win, I will do it,” said Miller, who has been battling back issues over the past month-and-a-half and a recent ankle injury, too. “That’s just the attitude I’ve had all season about it, so that’s all it is. Trust in God’s plan.”

Whatever it takes, especially for a kid from basketball-proud Kentucky.

“It would mean the world to me,” Miller said of a ticket to the dance.

“All my life I wanted to get to the NCAA Tournament and showcase my skills, and I know all my teammates want to do the same — and Coach Marlin.

“I feel like we’ve worked really hard … and just put a lot of time and effort into this,” Miller added, “and this weekend is really just a testimony of what we’ve been doing all season and all year. So I think we’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.”

More: Marlin says UL leader Washington 'loves to rebound'

No. 1 seed UL (27-5) vs. No. 4 seed TEXAS-ARLINGTON (20-12)

WHAT: Sun Belt Tournament quarterfinal-round game

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Saturday

WHERE: Lakefront Arena, New Orleans

TV: None

ONLINE: ESPN3

RADIO: KHXT 107.9 FM with Jay Walker

UL LEADERS: Frank Bartley IV, 17.6 points per game; JaKeenan Gant, 14.2 points, 6.0 rebounds per game and 2.4 blocks per game; Bryce Washington, 10.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg; Johnathan Stove, 10.2 ppg; Marcus Stroman, 6.4 assists per game

More: Cajuns don't want disastrous end to storybook season



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