After swapping sunny Gainesville, Florida, for chilly College Park, Lavender Briggs underwent surgery last January to repair a stress fracture in her left shin, a procedure that prevented her from playing for Maryland’s women’s basketball.
Transferring in the middle of a season left Briggs with few familiar faces, but there was one person who quickly made the Utah native feel welcome: Diamond Miller. The first day back from Briggs’ surgery, Miller, Faith Masonius and Shyanne Sellers were in her room helping out.
“That meant a lot to me because I was new here and I got a pretty big surgery, and she was there for me right off the jump,” Briggs said.
Miller, a standout guard, enters her senior season as the undisputed leader of a perennially competitive Terps squad with lofty postseason expectations. In three seasons playing under coach Brenda Frese, she has achieved many accolades, including All-Big Ten First and Second Team honors to go with a 2021 Big Ten Tournament Co-MVP award.
But last year tested Miller. She struggled with injuries and underwent surgery while many of her now-former teammates transferred out of the program.
She declined to speak on the process that ultimately ended with her decision to return but delved into the unseen impact of the surgery and the surrounding turmoil the spring brought.
“I was literally, when people were leaving, going through surgery, so it was just a lot for me at that time,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t healthy, and I was more focused on just being happy … than I was about what school I was attending. I was just really focused on my injury and being around people who loved me and cared for me.”
Miller, who again was named to the All-Big Ten Preseason Team, returns to a reshaped Maryland team as its unequivocal leader, one of the standard-bearers for a team trying to re-establish itself in the Big Ten.
“This is her team this season,” Frese said. “She’s earned that right.”
Junior year stumbles
Miller struggled in 2021 despite being named to the coach’s preseason All-Big Ten team after a knee injury limited her to just 18 regular season games. The Terps wilted against top-tier competition and regressed from the 2020 team that averaged 90.8 points per game.
She missed the team’s first four games rehabbing the knee injury before returning to face UNC Wilmington and Baylor. But an awkward fall in the latter matchup cost her another six games.
Miller opted for surgery in early April following the trying season.
“I’m definitely learning my new body [post operation], and it’s been a journey,” she said, “But overall, I think I’m handling it much better this time around than the first time.”
The shared experience of recovering from major surgeries helped Briggs and Miller bond over the past several months. Getting injured taxes you “mentally, physically, emotionally,” Briggs said, but the two Terps helped each other through the process.
Miller learned the importance of mental and physical strength when working back from injury, but Frese has also seen a change in how she has imparted that knowledge to younger players.
When talking with other players working their way back from injuries, Miller told them to listen to their bodies and that “less is more.” The wisdom she shared with those other players shocked Frese but also illustrated how far Miller had grown.
“I never thought I would hear those words come out of her mouth,” Frese said.
Maryland ended the 2021-2022 season in difficult fashion, exiting the Big Ten tournament in the quarterfinals for the first time since joining the conference and failed to advance past the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. After the season, the roster was decimated by the graduations of Chloe Bibby and Katie Benzan and the transfers of Angel Reese, Ashley Owusu and Mimi Collins.
By late April, the Terps had lost five of their six top scorers.
But as practices begin, April — and its roster turnover — feels like a distant memory.
Amid all the change, Miller returns to a familiar coaching and medical staff. Since last October, she has been working with the same physical therapist. That continuity was vital to her choice to return.
“I think she had great relief knowing she was going to be taken care of here with the rehab and the doctors and the process,” Frese said.
Miller’s familiarity with the training staff mirrored her trust in Frese. She chose to reunite with the coach for one final run — an easy decision considering her goals after college and Frese’s proficiency in sending players to the professional ranks.
“I just felt like I just wanted to stay one more year,” Miller said of her decision to stay in College Park. “And the goal doesn’t change for me; I still want to pursue basketball outside of college, so I felt like this was still a good fit for me.”
That fit between player and coach goes both ways. Miller enters the season as the player on the roster who Frese and her coaching staff will trust in high-pressure, game-clinching situations.
“Why wouldn’t you want to be that leader who everybody looks up to and your coaches trust … wanting to make that tough shot and tough play at the end of the game?” Frese asked. “She knows that this is a coach that believes in her abilities.”
Learning to lead
When a naturally reserved Miller came to Maryland in the fall of 2019, the Terps’ seniors were Kaila Charles, Stephanie Jones, Sara Vujacic and Blair Watson. Charles and Jones have spent time in the WNBA, and Vujacic and Watson have played professionally overseas.
Playing with future pros gave Miller several leaders to learn from and showed her a clear path to playing at the top levels.
Now, it’s a different situation.
Miller’s one of the few experienced players on a roster with nine players who have never donned the Maryland colors.
“It’s her turn to bring others along with her,” Frese said. “You couldn’t ask for a better time with so many changes with this roster in the offseason.”
In just a few months, Briggs has observed that one of Miller’s strengths is her ability to hold others to the high standard the program demands. Her experiences with the Terps have shaped her understanding of the discipline needed in practices, one she passes on to her teammates.
In the three years since she arrived in College Park, Miller has gone from quiet freshman to vocal senior, a change Benzan, who spent the past two seasons with Miller, lauded.
“She’s really grown and just being that vocal presence,” Benzan said. “And also just having those tough conversations with your teammates, just making sure everybody’s doing their job, having the maturity to speak up and say what’s right.”
Miller’s developed the confidence to speak up and a knowledge of how to communicate with specific teammates, Briggs said. She’ll push players who need in-your-face motivation and step back when others require a gentler approach.
The approach came due to the bond she’s formed with each of her teammates, Miller said. She’s learned how to approach them through those relationships.
“That’s really how you become a leader is learning your team,” she said.
That leadership can ease the pressure that comes with the coaching staff’s demands of excellence, balancing the input players receive with a kinder word, Benzan said.
“Sometimes it’s nice as a player-leader on the team to then just go up like, ‘Hey, we believe in you,’ and just give that supportive, that loving voice,” she said. “I think Diamond is going to do very well in that aspect.”
Full speed ahead
This past summer, Miller went through several months of recovery, an arduous process for the 6-foot-3 senior. Those around her have noticed that struggle and her choice to stay despite seeing many of the players she came to Maryland with leave.
The Terps again have one of the nation’s toughest schedules, with games against last year’s national champion, South Carolina, and runner-up, UConn, paired with a rigorous conference slate that begins Dec. 4 against Nebraska.
With more than 10 nationally televised games against that imposing lineup, Miller will have plenty of chances to make her case to professional coaches and staff and etch her name into Maryland’s record books. She has a chance to crack the school’s top-30 all-time scoring list, currently sits in the top-10 career free-throw percentage and could finish in the top-20 on the all-time blocks list.
Frese isn’t surprised by Miller’s perseverance and her lofty ambitions.
“She’s fought hard and stayed the course,” she said. “I hope she’s rewarded.”