BOILING SPRINGS, N.C. – As Gardner-Webb continues its week-long celebration of its first-ever Big South conference tournament title and NCAA tournament berth, the hoops world is slowly familiarizing itself with this Christian university of nearly 5,000 students in western North Carolina.
There’s forward DJ Laster, who poured in a career-high 32 points in that Big South tournament victory, with that high eclipsed before the under-16 timeout in the second half. Guards David Efianayi and Jose Perez had a huge few days, hauling in rebounds and making key shots. Nearly every Runnin’ Bulldog on the active roster turned in key contributions in allowing the trophy to accompany the team on its three-and-a-half-hour bus ride back from Radfird, Virginia, Sunday afternoon.
Count forward/center Brandon Miller among the key contributors in Gardner-Webb’s run to the title.
Miller, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound native of Orlando, Florida, made the trek to Boiling Springs in 2014, joining Efianayi as part of that year’s class. Miller redshirted that first year, having battled a number of injuries during his time at Orlando Christian Prep. What Miller found upon arriving was quite different from his hometown.
“Coming from Orlando, (it’s) definitely a different culture. People are nicer. People walk by you, and they say hi,” Miller says. “I’ve built such a love for this campus. Yes, it’s small, and you wouldn’t really think about it coming in, but as you see the culture, it’s so amazing. I love this school, and what it has brought (me).”
To listen to Miller discuss his five years as a Runnin’ Bulldog is to hear a series of small gestures that have added up to shaping an already formidably-sized man. There’s the story of cafeteria workers saving him cookies. He also recounts Dr. Meredith Rowe, who helped guide him in Biology during her lunch breaks.
It is, perhaps, these experiences that kept Miller’s spirits high as he battled the adversity of injuries, and the toll those injuries took on his basketball career.
Miller played in 74 games as a Runnin’ Bulldog, before the injury bug bit again. Miller required knee surgery after contributing nearly 17 minutes per game over his first 10 games last year, which ended his season. The redshirt junior had contributed a double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds) against Jacksonville just two weeks prior, and started the final game in which he appeared last season.
“(I had) two surgeries that took me out for the season last year,” said Miller. “I was getting my numbers up last year and then got hurt, and I had surgery again.”
Miller came back this season, looking to bounce back from that injury and close his redshirt senior season with a bang. The big man has appeared in 28 games, starting just one. He has averaged roughly two points and two boards per game. While those numbers may not jump off the page, Miller’s contributions have certainly not gone unnoticed by his teammates and coach.
“This team has really embraced their roles individually, and it’s really helped us, obviously, to just be about the team,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft after his team’s Big South semifinal victory at Campbell. “Guys like Brandon and (forward) Eric (Jamison), they make that work, because they’ve been able to take on lesser roles, but still be ready to play when their number’s called, come to practice with great attitudes, and be about our team and others. This has been a special group to coach because of that.”
Miller called starting on Gardner-Webb’s Senior Day “cool”, but has been, as his coach mentioned, more focused on the accomplishments of others, including the team of which he has been a part for five years. Among those accomplishments he witnessed were Laster and Efianayi each becoming thousand-point scorers at Gardner-Webb.
Where some players might – understandably – be bitter or wistful about seeing teammates do those things of which they deemed themselves capable, Miller exhibited a quite different reaction.
“Any guy wants to average a double-double and stuff like that. It’s fun,” said Miller. “I’m happy for my guys. DJ, David…I’ve been there since day one. These guys are thousand-point scorers. Of course, I wanted to (do those same things), but my journey is a little different than everybody’s. I love it that they were able to accomplish their goals. I’m happy for everybody.”
When asked about his own goals, Miller’s first response was another team milestone, which it has already achieved.
“First, I’m trying to get this conference championship,” said Miller.
Only then did the graduate student allow for his own individual goals to be spoken.
“I’m going to finish up my master’s degree (after earning a bachelor’s in Public Relations last year) and get my doctorate,” said Miller. “My story doesn’t end here. I still have a lot more to do in the marketing world and in sales. I’m really excited about the future. Very excited.”
Miller’s basketball story won’t end for at least another few days, as the ‘Dogs await the announcement of their postseason destination on Selection Sunday. When it does end, though, Miller will walk off the court with his head high.
“(This year was) definitely challenging, because I definitely didn’t want to end my senior year the way I did, in my role, but sometimes, you’ve just gotta embrace it, because God has a plan for everybody,” said Miller. “I can’t complain. I would not change a thing, because this is gonna make me stronger in life. I can teach my kids this one day, how to get through adversity.
“I’m at peace. I’m at peace with it.”