When Nalini Miller emerged from the locker room during a timeout early in the first half, coach Jose Fernandez made eye contact with his star center, and with a wave of his hand, he put her into the game.
Number 32 then trotted past her teammates on the bench, removed her warm-ups and made her long-awaited return to the Bulls.
Though mostly invisible on the stat sheet, Miller was a factor.Motivation, it seemed, was in full supply.
USF (15-9 5-5, C-USA) went on to beat first-place Charlotte 68-59, with the Bulls playing an inspired form of basketball.
They fought for every ball, scratched at every one of Charlotte’s shots, forced 11 steals and beat one of Conference USA’s best teams.
They were clearly driven by the return of arguably their most important player, who they’ve been without since she injured her left hamstring during USF’s win over Louisville exactly one month ago.
During that month-long stretch, the Bulls went 3-5, including a three-game losing streak that ended versus Charlotte on Monday.
With a potential NCAA tournament berth in the balance, it seems Miller came back just in time — when her team needed her most.
The Bulls were slipping and Miller seems like she will provide traction.
The 6-foot Miller, who was averaging 10.3 points before the injury, played 20 minutes.
And while rust was visible — she hobbled a bit running up and down the court — Miller contributed more than her 5 points and 3 rebounds; she provided the Bulls with that little something extra.
“Without a doubt, it was a big lift all the way around,” Fernandez said. “Nalini is an important part of this team. She worked really hard to get back.”
Originally expected to return just before the C-USA tournament in March, Miller spent two hours a day working to get back into playing shape.
Miller said her leg felt fine after the game, but admits she had to tell herself to slow down a few times.
“I just can’t rush it yet,” Miller said. “But it just felt great to be playing again with my team, with my girls.”
The feeling’s mutual.
“We were missing her, but now we got her back,” senior Anedra Gilmore said. “And now we’re going to be something to be reckoned with.”