NEW YORK — Dane Miller says he’s never looked at Madison Square Garden the same way since his father died.
The last time Miller saw his dad, Dane Miller Sr., alive and healthy was when he was in attendance for North Carolina’s 23-point victory over Rutgers on Dec. 28, 2010.
A year and half went by and then the news came that Miller Sr. was in the hospital coping with a stroke. Dane visited him a couple times, but his father wasn’t responding, and two days later, “We finally pulled the plug.”
“My dad passed away a summer and a half ago so it was always tough to come back and play because the last time I saw him was here when we played North Carolina,” Miller told SNY.tv exclusively after he put up 11 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists as Rutgers beat St. John’s, 58-56, at the Garden. “So it was always tough to come here and look across the court and see where he sat.
“That was the last time I got to see him.”
Miller said he always starts off hesitantly when playing at the Garden because of his memories of his father and Wednesday was no exception. The 6-foot-6 senior from Rochester was held scoreless in the first half as St. John’s took a 27-23 halftime lead.
“I think that’s why I started off the game like that,” Miller said.
But at halftime, Miller took charge, telling his teammates in the locker room, “Yo, that first half was on me.”
“He would’ve never said that [before], he would’ve put his head down and mumbled something,” Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. “But he didn’t. He patted himself on the chest and said, ‘This is on me, the first half. We’re’ fine. I’ll play better,’ and he did. I love the way he responded.”
Miller went out and scored all 11 of his points in the second half, including back-to-back buckets on a drive and then a putback to put Rutgers up for good, 55-53.
Myles Mack and Mike Poole made 3-of-4 free throws down the stretch and D’Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson both missed 3-pointers down the stretch for St. John’s.
Rutgers is now 11-3 overall, 2-1 in the Big East for the first time in seven years and just the third time overall.
Rice, who is fighting for his job after being suspended three-games and fined $50,000 for reportedly throwing basketball at his players’ heads during his tenure, is riding a two-game Big East winning streak entering Saturday night’s home tilt against Cincinnati.
“Every time I see this building it was tough for me, but I’m just happy to get this win,” Miller said. “It was a team thing. I’m happy to get Coach Rice a win, man, and make everybody understand he’s doing a great job.”
Miller came to Rutgers amid much hype and during his freshman season he was neck-and-neck with Cincinnati’s Lance Stephenson for Big East Rookie of the Year honors. Stephenson, now with the Indiana Pacers, won the award.
Miller has shown flashes of his skillset, but has never quite sustained his original hype and now he has been overtaken by teammates Eli Carter (eight points) and Mack (nine) as Rutgers’ stars.
“I just felt like it was all about confidence,” Miller said. “The first half of the game, I wasn’t being aggressive, I was being passive. That’s what I do, I get other guys better. At the same time, I could score but I just have to find a way to tap that in the whole time and be aggressive.”
Yet in some ways Miller may be Rutgers’ most important player despite his stats (8.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg).
“He has as much potential as anybody,” Rice said.
Said teammate Wally Judge: “He’s a very talented player because he can affect the game in so many ways, like tonight he showed that he can rebound, he showed that he can make great passes and we need that night in and night out from him for us to be successful so we just gotta push him to be the best player he can be.”
Said teammate Austin Johnson: “He’s our engine, he makes us go. So anything that he does, he instills into the rest of the team, so when he goes like that everybody follows suit.”
Miller could’ve been a preseason All-Big East player, but because he hasn’t lived up to his potential he wasn’t.
He said he’s more worried about reaching the postseason than about individual accolades, but if Miller can find it within himself to play like he did in the second half every minute of every game, Rutgers could be a force in more games and make a run to the top half of the Big East.
“I tell him every day,” Judge said, “he’s a pro, it’s time to play like one.”