Olivia Miles and the quest to return Notre Dame women's basketball to the top

Olivia Miles makes a nice move for the layup (0:17)

Olivia Miles makes a nice move for the layup (0:17)

OLIVIA MILES PUSHES the ball up the court, her legs churning as she beats her defender on the fast break. The path to the rim is clear, but Miles reads it differently. Wearing her signature goggles, her hair scattering from the top of her bun, Miles delivers a long bounce pass ahead to freshman KK Bransford as the crowd gasps with surprise. Bransford lays the ball through the hoop in Notre Dame's season-opening game against Northern Illinois.

Trotting backward, Miles jumps off her back foot and intercepts a pass with one hand. She pushes forward, dribbles between her legs and pulls up for a midrange jumper. On another fast break, she sprints to the right with the ball before firing a no-look pass across her body to a cutting Maddy Westbeld for a layup.

It is impossible not to watch Olivia Miles when the basketball is in her hands, whether she's making a one-handed pass, finishing with flair at the rim or showing off her handles.

Basketball is rhythmic. Certain things happen at specific times. Miles disrupts the rhythm. Her unorthodox choices, like throwing a one-handed pass across her body with her left hand while off balance, might appear to be, at times, ill-advised. But defenses rarely see it coming.

She water dances like Arya Stark and feints like Amanda Nunes. She is Notre Dame's 5-foot-10 do-everything engine trying to power the Fighting Irish back into national championship contention.

After winning the national title in 2018 and falling in the final game in 2019, Notre Dame went 23-28 over the next two seasons and missed the 2021 NCAA tournament (the 2020 tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Legendary coach Muffet McGraw retired following the 2019-20 season after the Irish had their first losing season since 1991-92. Their 13-18 record ended a streak of nine straight 30-plus-win seasons.

Longtime assistant Niele Ivey took over in 2020-21, inheriting a program that was sinking fast. "I knew it was a rebuild at that time," Ivey says.

After an 8-6 start to Ivey's first season, the first early enrollee in Notre Dame women's basketball history arrived. Ivey believed she had her foundation.

"You have to get the head of the snake, you have to get that point guard," Ivey says. "I needed somebody who could come in right away and make an impact. And that's who [Miles] is."

Two winding years later, the snake seems poised to strike.

SHE FELT MORE like an intruder than the No. 8 recruit in the nation. Miles remembers her first practice at Notre Dame vividly. It's a day she'd rather forget.

It was the middle of the 2020-21 season, and Miles had just put her high school education on fast forward -- grinding through her classwork and graduating a semester early -- after the COVID-19 pandemic had put her senior season at New Jersey's Blair Academy in doubt.

She walked into Notre Dame's practice gym and saw strangers -- players who had started the season together, players who had struggled together, players who had bonded together. And now Miles was expected to be the one to turn it all around.

"I remember tearing up," Miles says. "Everything was overwhelming. I just felt out of place. I didn't know if I could overcome that sort of feeling."

On the surface, South Bend and Phillipsburg, the New Jersey town where Miles grew up, seem similar. Phillipsburg, home to about 15,000 people, sits on the border of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Miles attended a private Catholic school for much of her childhood and went to high school 45 minutes up the road at Blair Academy, a prep boarding school. A small city like South Bend with a Catholic school in Notre Dame wasn't unfamiliar.

But to Miles, everything seemed new: a new level of competition, a new playbook, a new school. Practice was hard. Classes were hard.

Irish guard Dara Mabrey had heard about the hotshot prospect, a fellow New Jerseyan, but the kid Mabrey met that first day of practice seemed quiet and reserved.

"I wouldn't say she got comfortable right away," says Mabrey, now a senior, "but she trusted in her abilities right away."

So did their coach. Ivey had first seen Miles play in middle school -- "She just stood out," Ivey says -- and when she took over the Notre Dame program, Miles was one of her first calls. On Ivey's second day on the job, Miles committed.

Notre Dame was flailing at 8-6 before Miles played her first game, in which she scored four points and picked up four fouls in 14 minutes in a loss to Syracuse.

But rewind back to that first practice. For Mabrey, one moment stands out. Miles dribbled the ball up the middle of the floor while Mabrey tracked along the sideline. Miles fired a long pass to Mabrey in the corner. She caught it in step and drilled the shot.

"We just had this immediate connection," Mabrey says. "I was like 'Oh wow, this is going to be fun.'"

The fun, however, was fleeting. With Miles, the Irish limped to a 2-4 finish, including a season-ending first-round loss to Clemson in the 2021 ACC tournament, a game in which Miles committed seven turnovers.

The road back to the top of the game appeared awfully steep.

OLIVIA MILES NEVER bothered with crawling, and it took mere months for her dad, Yakubu Miles, to recognize his daughter's physical gifts.

"At 6 months old, if you held her hand, she would actually just walk," he says. "And by 8 months she was running around walking on her own."

Usually with a ball at her feet. Soccer was Olivia's first love, and her dad says she started playing as soon as she could walk.

But one day in elementary school, when Yakubu arrived at her after-school program, he found his daughter playing basketball. He watched and waited for Olivia to finish. He watched and waited the next day as well. Then again the next. Finally, Yakubu put Olivia in an instructional program so she could learn to play for real.

Like a favorite old teddy bear, Olivia brought soccer along with her, and that sport continues to influence Miles' basketball game to this day. She played midfield through middle school and was a forward in high school. Those passes in tight windows on the break are not dissimilar to threading a through ball on the counterattack. The way she opens lanes for herself and her teammates is drawn from the same bag of tricks as a soccer stepover.

"She's not just beating the person on her," former Blair Academy girls' basketball coach Quint Clarke says. "She's trying to move the help defense with her shoulders and her hips and her eyes so that she can make the pass. She'll notice somebody she thinks can get a shot, and she'll just move that help defender a couple steps with some sort of decoy and snap the pass out there."

The results have prompted more than a few gasps.

"Her vision surprises me sometimes," says Ivey, a former Notre Dame point guard herself. "The plays that she'll see and the fact that she'll make it happen. Sometimes it's her finishes. She's got an elite finishing package, and she'll finish in a way that even I've never seen."

Former point guard to current point guard, and coach to player, Ivey keeps an open line of communication with Miles. She knows Notre Dame's success depends on it.

"I like to talk to her about things that I see," Ivey says. "I ask her a lot of questions. What do you see? What could have been maybe a better decision? I try to make sure that I'm really being transparent and communicate what I need from her. I try to make sure that I do that as her coach so she can play with that sense of freedom."

The freedom to follow her soccer instincts to basketball success.

"You have to take that risk," Miles says. "In basketball, it kind of translates to having the confidence to either make a through ball or make a good pass down the lane. They both emulate each other."

Miles stays connected to soccer through the international game. She doesn't root for a specific team but rattles off a list of players she watches: Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Erling Haaland, Kevin De Bruyne and so on.

She also enjoys playing FIFA. Like on the court, she's confident in her abilities -- no matter where the challenge comes from.

"PlayStation's right out there," Miles smirks when I tell her I, too, play FIFA.

NOTRE DAME LOOKED poised to make a leap a year ahead of schedule. In her first full season, Miles and the Irish had NC State, the region's top seed, on the ropes in the 2022 Sweet 16 at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Notre Dame entered the final quarter leading by seven. Miles dominated the first half, scoring 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting and dishing the ball at will.

During the second half, however, she was silenced as the NC State defense keyed in on her.

Five days earlier in the second round, Notre Dame had thrashed fifth-seeded Oklahoma 108-64 on the Sooners' home court. The Fighting Irish had shown flashes of greatness all season long but had been unable to sustain it.

Such was the case on this night in Bridgeport. In the fourth quarter, NC State put Notre Dame on its heels, erasing the seven-point deficit and going on to win the game 66-63. In the final period, Notre Dame had five turnovers, two of them Miles'. Miles shot 2-for-7 from the floor in the fourth quarter, including 0-for-4 from beyond the arc.

"I feel like we fully deserved to go to the Elite Eight and beyond," Miles says. "So that was definitely frustrating for me."

During her two weeks off after the conclusion of the season, Miles texted assistant coach Michaela Mabrey, Dara's sister, asking to watch the film of the game. She wanted to look the mistakes, her own mistakes, in the face.

"She was hungry after that game," Mabrey says. "She was hungry because she knew we should have won."

Notre Dame finished the 2021-22 season an encouraging 24-9 and two wins from a trip back to the Final Four. But after that loss, Miles knew she needed to make changes. She focused on increasing her endurance during the offseason. She started running down-and-backs between drills, she hit the weight room, she focused on getting better sleep, eating better food.

"Last year we had a really short bench, so I got a taste of staying in the game a long time and sometimes I couldn't do it," Miles says. "This offseason, my goal was like, 'Don't ask Coach Ivey for a sub.' Be so in shape that you never have to ask for a sub or you never have to be in doubt of coming off the floor."

As the 2022-23 season started, Miles was pushing pace in practice and in games. She ratcheted up the tempo anytime she could, sprinting with the ball as much as possible. Last season, that approach would have worn her down. But so far, being winded hasn't been a problem. The offseason dedication was in service of one goal: win a national championship.

After all, she came to Notre Dame because the academics were challenging. She relishes the challenge of forcing people to bring their attention back to an esteemed program working its way back to the top.

"I just want to bring Notre Dame back to the glory days," Miles says. "For some reason I feel like for a lot of my life I've been kind of running under the radar. I feel like there is an underdog aspect to that and that kind of motivates me."

So does that bitter season-ending loss to NC State. "Fuel for this year for sure," she says.

SITTING IN A tall chair inside of Notre Dame's film room, Miles crosses her arms across her chest as she considers her play from the 2022-23 season opener, an 88-48 win against Northern Illinois. "To be honest," she says. "I was pretty disappointed."

The source of that disappointment is her shooting. She went 5-for-14 from the field and 1-for-4 from beyond the arc. She finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 6 steals. It's the sort of souped-up stat line that has become standard for the sophomore guard, who last season became the first freshman in NCAA history to have a triple-double in the NCAA tournament when she dropped 12 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in Notre Dame's first-round 89-78 victory over UMass.

Miles is quick to be candid with her shortcomings, but she is also wary of how her self-critique may be perceived. "I don't want to sound like a brat; I had a good game," she says soon after criticizing her shooting performance against Northern Illinois. "I'm proud of myself for coming out and starting a season like that, but at the same time, if I do want to reach that next level, I have to not miss those shots that I did."

She always has been more comfortable with leadership by deed than leadership by word.

Miles thinks about how she is perceived by those around her often. She's considerate with her words, never wanting to say the wrong thing or come off in a way she doesn't intend. She has heard from some people that she's unapproachable, but that's not how she sees herself.

"A lot of people say that I give them dirty looks and I'm like, that's just kind of my RBF," Miles says. "I promise I'm not mean, but I'm just very shy and very quiet. I'm not giving you dirty looks. I promise."

Quite the opposite, Michaela Mabrey says. Miles is simply taking stock of the situation. Like an emerging leader should.

"Olivia is a very genuine and gentle person who understands feelings," Mabrey says. "She reads energies in the sense of she's very aware of why people are the way they are."

The newness of South Bend has, in many ways, abated. Miles feels comfortable with the Notre Dame playbook; strangers have become teammates; old acquaintances have become friends.

With the Mabreys, the connection is food.

"In New Jersey, the food, it's amazing," Miles says. "It's way better than Indiana [where] it's just fast food. There's no mom and pops."

A pork roll. Egg and cheese on an everything bagel. A Playa acai bowl. Pizza. Thinking of any food from the shore makes Miles yearn for home, and the Mabreys bring a bit of New Jersey to Indiana for Miles. Sometimes, that includes literal bits of Jersey.

"It's the bagels and the pizza," Michaela says.

Fellow sophomore Sonia Citron, who arrived at the start of last year, brought another East Coast tie.

Hailing from Eastchester, New York, the No. 16 recruit played both with and against Miles as they ascended through the prep ranks. They met while waiting in line at an all-star event with their dads -- who are both talkative while Citron and Miles ... are not.

"We were both shy," Citron says. "We were like, 'Oh, hey.' Quick smile. Didn't talk at all."

Citron, who also played with Miles in the USA Basketball system, watched Miles blossom from the shy girl she met in line to the quiet but confident leader at Notre Dame.

"A lot of the things she does, it's because she's so confident in herself and her abilities," Citron says. "It's amazing to watch, honestly. It kind of rubs off on people."

MILES JOGS TO the top of the key to take the ball from Westbeld. It's midway through the first quarter in the Fighting Irish's November game against Ball State, and Notre Dame trails by two points. Miles sizes up her defender, who is hitched forward at the hips, her back rounding toward the ceiling.

Miles dribbles a crossover from her left to her right hand and takes a step toward the basket. The Ball State player tries to stay with her, but Miles crosses back over to her left. The defender's momentum carries her past Miles, and as Miles steps back behind the 3-point line, she sees nothing but empty space in front of her.

Miles elevates for the shot and drains it to give Notre Dame the lead. As she trots back on defense, Miles shakes out her hand as if to say it was on fire.

Despite the mounting evidence, resist the temptation to call Olivia Miles flashy.

"I've always had a negative connotation around that word for myself," Miles says. "From the way I see it, being flashy is doing too much."

Doing much, particularly in the scoring column, is exactly what is expected of Miles in her sophomore season. Her proverbial hot hand against Ball State produced yet another impressive stat line: 13 points, 7 rebounds, 11 assists in a 35-point victory for Notre Dame.

"I'm a pass-first point guard," Miles says. "But I've been working on being more aggressive to the basket."

The first player Miles mentions as a basketball influence is Sue Bird, which seems surprising on the surface. Bird embodied the classic point guard archetype. Though she once passed the ball between her legs to Lauren Jackson, Bird was more John Stockton than Magic Johnson.

"I just love comparing myself to her because her love for setting people up and being that playmaker for her team," Miles says. "That's what I admire in her a lot and what I try and emulate. Not so much play style."

A Sue Bird mentality with a Chelsea Gray-style execution. Miles also mentions Skylar Diggins-Smith, Maya Moore, Arike Ogunbowale, Stephen Curry and Trae Young as players she loves to watch and emulate. Miles likes to push the envelope. She likes to do the unexpected.

So if not flashy, then what?

"Swaggy," she says. "I think swaggy is a good way to put it."

MILES STANDS PERFECTLY still when she first sizes up a defender. She moves exactly how and when she means to. In the moment before that action, however, there is complete stillness. It's the millisecond before she flashes her foot into a jab step, or just before she flicks her wrist for a cross-court pass. Somehow, she is still even when hopping through the air as she pulls a hesitation move before driving to the basket.

It's the stillness that puts defenders on their heels. They might think they know what Miles is about to do and try to cheat it. They might stab a foot toward her and reach a hand toward the ball or try to jump a screen. That's when Miles looks omniscient behind her goggles. The stillness is deceptive; her body might not be moving, but her mind is active.

For all the focus on her flair, Miles is a sophomore point guard, the leader at the forefront of this blue-blood women's basketball program trying to find its way back.

Seven games into her sophomore season, Miles is averaging 15.7 points, 6.7 assists, 7.0 rebounds and 2.7 steals. She leads the team in assists and steals and is second in points and rebounds.

After opening the season with six straight wins, Miles and Notre Dame encountered their first taste of adversity Thursday night, dropping a heartbreaker at home to Maryland, 74-72. With 55 seconds to go and Notre Dame trailing by two, Miles snagged a defensive board and sprinted up the court toward the basket. Swerving through the lane, Miles flicked the ball off the backboard with her right hand as she was fouled. Her free throw put the Fighting Irish on top, but only temporarily. It was Miles at her best, but it wasn't enough. Plagued by foul trouble all night, Miles finished with 14 points, 4 rebounds and 7 assists. There's no time to sulk.

Next up is No. 3 UConn (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC), a storied rival that has beaten Notre Dame by an average of 21.5 points in their past two meetings. It will feature a showdown between two of the best sophomores in the country: Azzi Fudd vs. Olivia Miles.

How the Fighting Irish perform will say a lot about whether Ivey's team is ready to truly contend for a national title. It will say a lot about Miles, too. The kid who was lost at her first practice two years ago might now be coiled to strike.

"I think that really made me grow up in a lot of different ways and kind of accelerated my process here," Miles says.

One thing is guaranteed: Miles will make an incredible pass or finish in traffic with one hand. She will lull a defender to sleep in that deceptive moment of stillness.

"We go," says assistant coach Michaela Mabrey, "as she goes."