Why Notre Dame’s next big star is fine with you underestimating her: ‘I just kill them on the court’

Detroit Free Press

Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Niele Ivey had heard rumors.

Supposedly in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, some 650 miles away from Notre Dame, there was an eighth-grade point guard named Olivia Miles with exceptional vision and eye-popping scoring ability. Ivey, now in her third year as head coach of the Irish after a 12-year stint as an assistant, had to investigate.

Notre Dame is no stranger to stellar guard play. Over the course of playing in nine Final Fours and winning two national championships, Irish uniforms were worn by the likes of Ivey herself (class of 2001), Skylar Diggins (2013), Jewell Loyd (2015), Jackie Young (2019) and Arike Ogunbowale (2019), each of whom turned in All-America campaigns in South Bend, Indiana. (The last four were all top five WNBA draft picks, too). Their fingerprints, and names, are all over the Notre Dame record books.

As such, it takes a truly impressive guard to turn Ivey’s head when she hits the recruiting trail. And when she first walked in the gym to watch Miles, she did a double take. This was the girl who sliced and diced defenses at will, who could bully other guards in the paint and score at the rim whenever she wanted? The nerdy looking one in goggles?

“You never know what you’re going to see, but it’s not what I was expecting,” Ivey recalled, laughing, to USA TODAY Sports. “But when she stepped on the floor, oh my gosh, she completely separated herself – how fast she was with the ball, the way she gets downhill, what an elite finisher she is. She reminded me of an NBA player with her skill set.”

That’s a comparison Ivey doesn’t make lightly, after spending a year as an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies and raising an NBA lottery pick in Jaden Ivey, now a rookie with the Detroit Pistons. She knows pro skill when she sees it. And it was clear Miles had it.

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Last year, in her first full season with the Irish, Miles became the first-ever freshman, man or woman, to record a triple-double in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament. That she tallied 12 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in her tournament debut, an 89-78 win over Massachusetts, made it that much more impressive.

“If they underestimate me because of how I look, I just kill them on the court,” said Miles, shrugging. She seemed nonplussed. She has had glasses since she was a baby and has never felt the need to switch to contacts. The only time she second-guesses the goggles are when she starts to sweat profusely and they fog up. Otherwise, she’s content to look unassuming.

And it’s working for her. Miles averaged 13.7 points, 7.4 assists (second in the nation) and 5.7 rebounds per game last season for the Irish. She also nabbed 1.8 steals per game.

The first-ever early enrollee for Notre Dame women’s basketball, Miles joined the team in January 2021, technically the winter of her senior year of high school, because COVID-19 had shut down prep sports in New Jersey. She practiced three times, then played her first college game at Syracuse on Jan. 31, just two days after her 18th birthday. In 14 minutes off the bench she scored four points, handed out two assists and grabbed three steals and two rebounds. She also recorded two turnovers and four fouls.

Ivey saw only positives.

“My biggest thing was, ‘You belong at this level right now,’” Ivey recalled telling Miles.

The game would slow down as Miles got better acquainted with the offense, Ivey told her. But in the meantime, she could contribute.

Ivey likes to say Miles had a “bonus year” even though Miles herself is sometimes frustrated by it; conferences determined that early enrollees were not eligible for freshman awards their first full season. Winning ACC freshman of the year was at the top of a long goal list.

Miles spent the offseason focusing on her midrange game, decision-making and getting in better shape. She likes to study the play of some of the NBA’s best guards to better understand “how they control the game.” Steph Curry is her favorite because “he dominates the floor at all times, even without the ball in his hands.” She also loves watching Trae Young, Jordan Poole, Ja Morant and Jaden Ivey. Niele Ivey said Miles reminds her of Chris Paul – one of the NBA’s best playmakers who reads and exploits defenses as well as anyone – because of her exceptional vision.

As someone whose anxiety tends to ratchet up before games, Miles also focused on calming her nerves. Walking around campus, even in the dead of winter, helps center her. She’s had honest talks with those closest to her about how she can take pressure off herself, especially right before games, and focus instead on the joy basketball brings her.

Soccer was Miles’ first love. Her dad, Yakubu, is from Jamaica, “so I started playing as soon as I could walk.” She added basketball in the fourth grade and ultimately decided that would be her sport because she was better at it. She’d fallen hard for the chaotic pace. Soccer is more of a slow build, she admitted, and not everyone can appreciate it.

“In soccer, I have to wait for the ball to come to me,” she said. “Basketball is so much more action, and being a point guard is fun because I get to direct everything and the ball is always in my hands.”

Soccer is still an important part of Miles’ life though. Attending a Euroleague game is at the top of her bucket list, preferably a Manchester City vs. Chelsea matchup. And she dominates at “FIFA,” even though her competition in the Irish locker room is minimal.

Miles used to be a “really, really big gamer,” but her schedule as a Division I athlete is packed, meaning she has to be judicious about extracurriculars. Her time waster of choice now is scrolling through Instagram, though she said, “when I feel like my brain is being rotted by my phone, I switch to games.”

For now, though, the only games Miles cares about are the ones Notre Dame plays this season. And while she’s not obsessed with recording triple-doubles, she likes that recording more of them gives her a concrete way to measure, and separate, herself from other standout players throughout women’s college basketball.

You know, besides her goggles.

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