UNCG hopes lessons learned lead to upset

The Spartans, who nearly knocked off Gonzaga in 2018, will face Florida State in the first round

Guard Isaiah Miller and UNC Greensboro are seeded 13th in the East Region and will face fourth-seeded Florida State in the first round Saturday in Indianapolis. (Kathy Kmonicek / AP Photo)

Wes Miller will never forget his first trip to the NCAA Tournament as a college basketball coach.

Not necessarily in a good way.

His underdog UNC Greensboro team was on the verge of an iconic first-round upset in 2018 when it led fourth-seeded Gonzaga by a basket with possession of the ball and less than a minute remaining. But the Spartans couldn’t finish the job, losing 68-64 to the defending national runner-up in a game that still haunts the former North Carolina point guard.

“I remember every possession from that game like it was yesterday. I literally remember everything,” Miller said. “That one hurt as bad as any loss I’ve ever experienced because you put yourself in position to win the game and couldn’t quite close it out on that stage, and you felt like your guys worked so hard to get to that moment.”

Even though three years have passed, Miller said he continues to replay the final minutes of that game and what went wrong, even when he’s in the shower.

Like any good coach, though, he’s tried his best to turn the disappointment into a learning experience.

Saturday in Indianapolis, Miller and his 13th-seeded Spartans (21-8) will get a chance to use the lessons gained from their near miss against Gonzaga when they return to the NCAA Tournament to take on another high-profile fourth seed — Florida State in the opening round of this year’s East Regional.

Tipoff is 12:45 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Indianapolis Pacers, with the winner taking on either fifth-seeded Colorado or No. 12 Georgetown on the same side of the bracket as top-seeded Michigan.

“The more experience you have in these type of moments, the more you gain from it,” said Miller, who won a national championship as a member of the Tar Heels in 2005. “There was some really good stuff we did to prepare for that game, and I think it gave me some confidence that you can try some things with this much practice time leading up to a tournament game.

“Obviously, I have some regrets about some of those last possessions, and I’ve tried to learn from those as a coach. Isaiah Miller and Kaleb Hunter were on that team, and I think they’ve died to get back to this moment because of how they felt that night in Boise.”

The opportunity is especially meaningful to Isaiah Miller.

A two-time Southern Conference Player of the Year who ranks third on UNCG’s all-time scoring list with 1,950 points, the 6-foot-1 guard played 16 minutes off the bench in the Gonzaga game as a freshman.

Although he and his team have come agonizingly close to getting back to the NCAA Tournament since then — the Spartans were the first team left out of the field in 2019 before having last year’s event canceled by the coronavirus pandemic — this will be his first, and probably last, chance at redemption.

“I’ve been trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament since my freshman year,” Isaiah Miller said in a Selection Sunday Zoom call. “It hasn’t been an easy road. I’ve been through this my freshman year, but we didn’t get past the first round. I am trying to make history.”

The selection committee didn’t do UNCG any favors by matching it against the Seminoles, a team Wes Miller called the best defensive team in the nation. But at least the Spartans were able to get a head start on scouting their first-round opponent thanks to their coach’s connection to UNC and the ACC.

“When we played Gonzaga a few years ago, it felt like you were starting from scratch. It doesn’t feel that way with Florida State,” Wes Miller said. “I watch them all the time. I’ve been a big fan of Leonard Hamilton, so I’ve tried to learn over the years from watching his team play.

“I watched their game a couple nights ago against Carolina, pulling really hard for coach (Roy) Williams, my brother and those guys. And I watched their game (in the ACC Tournament final) in isolation, so I have familiarity.”

Like the Spartans, who start a lineup featuring four upperclassmen, the ACC runner-up Seminoles (16-6) are a veteran team. While they have a size advantage and play an aggressive, physical style, redshirt junior guard Hunter said he and his teammates aren’t worried about being pushed around.

“We’re going to be ready for whoever we play,” he said. “We know Florida State is big, but we can’t control that. The only thing we can control is how we play, and we’ll be scrappy. As long as our names were called, that’s all that mattered. We’re blessed to be in this position.”