Notre Dame Women's basketball: Shifty, nifty Miles learning to be more demanding

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent
Olivia Miles (5) dribbles in the second half against Purdue Fort Wayne Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, at the Purcell Pavilion.

SOUTH BEND — Olivia Miles has been making it look easy, which is fitting, because deception is part of Miles’ game on some of those shifty, nifty passes.

To be clear, though, not everything has been easy for Notre Dame’s freshman point guard who leads the nation in assists and has helped steer the No. 20 Irish to a 10-2 women’s basketball record heading into Wednesday night’s game at DePaul (11-2).

There’s the issue of being sufficiently vocal for a point guard while merely a freshman.

There’s also the way she feels like the Atlantic Coast Conference has done her wrong, something she doesn’t hesitate to be vocal about.

More on the latter later, but regarding the former, “I’m still learning to say things,” Miles shared over the weekend. “I honestly like to let my game speak for itself. I feel like that has earned me the respect of my teammates, but my coaches, especially Michaela (Mabrey, her position coach), keep encouraging me to be more demanding.

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“It’s definitely not my personality to yell and get on someone’s case,” Miles continued in a whisper-like tone, “but I feel like that’s what we need sometimes, especially at point guard. You have to demand, you have to put people in the right spots and set people up, so I’m learning to do that within our system, and having my teammates’ respect makes it so much easier.”

Miles has earned that respect at least in part with her play.

The bespectacled one has particularly unleashed a couple grand spectacles lately.

In her last game, Sunday’s 85-59 victory over Pittsburgh, Miles became the first freshman in Irish history to post a 20-point, 10-assist showing, finishing at 21 and 11.

Two games before that, in a 73-56 win at Valparaiso, she became just the second ND freshman ever to notch a triple-double when she blended 13 assists and 13 rebounds with 11 points.

At 7.8 assists per game for the season, Miles is on pace to obliterate the Irish freshman standard of 4.5 set by Mary Gavin 37 years ago. Further, she’s behind only Gavin’s 8.6 and 7.9 for top single-season assist figures regardless of class.

Defying the role of guard, Miles is averaging a team-best 7.0 rebounds, too, to go with her 12.0 points and team-best 1.8 steals.

“Oh my gosh, she’s doing so well,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “She’s handled everything. I feel like every game, she’s more comfortable. She’s growing each game. She’s been a fast learner, and I feel like the sky’s the limit for her.”

The new kid at ND

Miles arrived at Notre Dame last January from Phillipsburg, N.J., as the first-ever early enrollee in program history, that decision triggered when her high school team’s season was shut down due to the pandemic and she had the sufficient academic requirements.

Notre Dame's Olivia Miles (5) looks to shoot while Connecticut's Christyn Williams defends, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

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“I did lose time with my high school friends and being in a comfortable environment where I could take it easy,” Miles said, “but I didn’t miss out on anything basketball-related, and coming here, I feel like I’ve gained so much more than I lost.”

Miles began practicing with the Irish on Jan. 26, celebrated her 18th birthday Jan. 29, then played her first collegiate contest just two days later at Syracuse.

She appeared in each of ND’s final six games, all off the bench, averaging 9.3 points and a team-leading 3.5 assists in 22.7 minutes.

“It was crazy,” Miles reflected. “I honestly had no time to think about what I actually did until summer. Considering COVID and the schedule we were playing (including two matchups with top-five Louisville), and the circumstances we were all in, it was really crazy. It was a lot, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.”

The experience, though it was just a half-dozen games, disqualified Miles, and other early enrollees, from ACC Freshman of the Week eligibility this season, the league decided.

Miles, who also has acknowledged that she cares about stats, especially assists, because they’re tangible measures of how she’s helping her team, flashes similar candor in admitting that honors matter as well.

“It’s frustrating,” Miles said of the ACC’s decision, “because I am putting in a lot and I’d like to be recognized for that. … It’s kind of disappointing that I can’t win. It’s almost unfair given the circumstances of last year. It was (six games), but I’m reaching for different goals. I’ve changed my mindset.”

Besides, Miles’ exclusion has opened the door for teammate Sonia Citron to so far dominate the award. Citron won it Tuesday for the fourth time in six weeks.

“I’m so glad, because Sonia deserves every single bit of that,” Miles said. “She’s been playing amazing and I love playing with her.”

Miles credits Citron as being the player who “makes others trust me” with “the way she runs” the court when the ball is in Miles’ hands.

“We have this certain level of understanding and knowledge of where we are on the court,” Miles said. “My comfort relies a lot on her ability to be in the right place.”

Trust and support

Miles says she wants a similar connection with each of her teammates, and says it’s growing with each game.

She also wants the responsibility of directing the Irish attack, even when it isn’t easy.

“There are points where I’m overwhelmed or stressed about it,” Miles acknowledged.

Nov 14, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Niele Ivey talks with guard Olivia Miles (5) against the Syracuse Orange during the first half at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

That’s when she leans on Ivey, her second-year head coach.

“She senses when I kind of get stressed,” Miles said. “We’ve had multiple talks where she says, ‘I understand, I’ve been in your position, I know the responsibility you have and I just want you to know you’re never alone, we’re all in this with you,’ so she really gives me reassurance.

“She’s been there before,” Miles added. “She’s a national champion point guard (in 2001 for the Irish), so she has the top experience there is.”

Ivey says Miles has proven dedicated with her buy-in.

“She came out of high school not only learning her position on the fly, but everybody’s position, which you have to do as a point guard,” Ivey said. “Our philosophies as an offense were already established. That can be very difficult, but she’s really been able to handle it.”

Besides Ivey and the other coaches, Miles’ also aims props at her parents.

Her mom, Maria, is a chemical engineer, and her dad, Yakubu, a software engineer in New Jersey. They’ve been to several of their daughter’s games.

“Which means the world to me,” Miles said. “They’ve always been super supportive of whatever I wanted to do, as long as I tried my best in it.”

Her father was a top middle-distance runner at Stevens Institute of Technology, while her mom dabbled in tennis, but has always “been more into the education vibe.”

“They always try to offer feedback after the games and are just curious where my head is at,” said Miles, who has a 14-year-old brother, basketball and soccer-playing Isaiah. "They’re always making sure I’m good mentally and emotionally. They recognize college can be very stressful, and they’re willing to help keep me level-headed as I move through it.”

Miles eventually wants to move through to pro basketball, and incorporate her business major at Notre Dame into a basketball-related business venture.