CHICAGO HEIGHTS | It is not surprising that Ashton Millender, the leading scorer on Marian Catholic's defending state champion girls basketball team, would invoke the same phrase as her coach when discussing the game she loves.
It is telling, though, that those same words fell from the mouth of John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who won 10 NCAA titles in a 12-year span.
"It's the little details that are vital," Wooden said. "Little things make big things happen."
Big things suddenly seem not so far away for Marian as they once did.
The Spartans (20-4) have won seven straight since losing Jan. 11 to the USA Today, ESPN and MaxPreps No. 1 team in the nation, St. Louis' Incarnate Word, including a Jan. 20 drubbing of the Rolling Meadows squad they beat by a point for last year's Class 4A title. They are playing less like a team that lost its beloved coach heading into the season than they are a squad embracing the tenets of its new taskmaster.
"We just had to get a feel for each other," Millender said of the players and Dan Murray, who replaced Annie Byrne after she went 216-51 in eight seasons. "We know his system and what to do now. Now we're fine, and we're getting better in the system.
"Last year, there was more running. Now, we can run, but we also have half-court plays. It's more about the little things this year."
The little things?
Funny, those are the things that endear Millender to Murray.
Hired in August, Murray missed out on any summer time with his new players, so he didn't know much more about Millender than what the stat sheet said: 15.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game as a junior — good enough to land her a scholarship to DePaul.
Millender also threw in a half-court shot to beat Marist in a sectional final, and 29 points in Marian's semifinal win over Whitney Young.
"I knew she was quite a shooter," Murray said. "She was obviously a big part of last year's team. I knew she was going to be a big part of this year's — and hopefully bring some leadership."
Murray has gotten more than he'd hoped for.
"This game is nothing but habits," he said. "And she really works on the little things."
There's that phrase again — which, to Murray, means things such as footwork. Passing lane awareness on both ends of the floor. Moving without the ball.
And to Millender?
"Eating healthy, stretching the night before a game, getting my mind ready to play," she said. "Knowing where to be, playing help defense."
Mention Millender's defense to Murray and his eyes light up.
"The biggest thing, defensively, she doesn't get nearly the amount of credit she deserves," Murray said. "I look at that Rolling Meadows game, and the job she did on (Northwestern-bound Alexis) Glasgow, as the perfect example."
Glasgow had 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting while Millender matched a career-high with 29. For the season, Millender is averaging 14 points per game, but that's trending up.
"Nov. 4 was literally Day 1 for us. We didn't have a summer," Murray said. "There was a feeling-out period. The girls were always trying to do the things we were asking of them, but as of late, we're playing our best basketball.
"Ashton is not thinking as much. She's letting the game come to her."
That hardly means spotting up and waiting for junior point guard Teniya Page to get her an open 3-pointer. Though Millender can knock those down, she also has an excellent mid-range game and is unafraid to attack the basket.
Despite being listed at 5-foot-10, Millender might not even be the 5-8 she is willing to claim in private. Yet, she is frequently under the backboard, and pulled down 12 rebounds in a Monday win over Crete-Monee, when Marian was low on forwards due to injuries and fouls.
"I know I'm a shooter — I have to keep shooting no matter what," she said. "But when my shot's not falling, I know I can get to the rim. I just go up strong."
There are other players who stand out more — in spurts — than Millender.
"She might not be the biggest, she might not have that blazing speed," Murray said. "But she's very efficient. She's very smart at playing the angles defensively. When it's time to step between the lines, she's all business.
"I hate to sound like a broken record, but it's all the little things."