In the fall of 1983, Cheryl Miller, perhaps the finest-ever woman basketball player, was pursuing her usual breakneck schedule at the University of Southern California, fueled by little more than noodles and soft drinks.

It was too few nutrients for too much Miller. One day, she fainted.

Sixty miles east, in Riverside, Calif., word of this did not sit well with Saul and Carrie Miller, the 6-foot-3 superstar's parents. This well-publicized teen-ager was to them simply the third of their five talented children.

Saul Jr., 28, is an alto saxophonist with the Air Force "Airmen of Note." Darrell, 26, is a catcher-first baseman for the California Angels. Reggie, 20, starts at forward for the UCLA basketball team. Tammy, 17, is a high school volleyball and track star.

Cheryl would have to remember that Millers have to eat right.

Carrie Miller, at 5 feet 8 the shortest in the family but the best cook, immediately dispatched plates of roast beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables, especially frozen so her careless daughter could just heat and serve.

Today, the plates still arrive with regularity, a boon to an exceptional athlete now under more pressure than ever.

Despite the enormous publicity of her Olympic team gold medal, despite helping USC win the national championship both of her previous years here, Cheryl Miller and the Women of Troy go into this weekend's opening round of the national playoffs a decided underdog.

Burdened by double and triple coverage, Miller still pushes her numbers to new heights. Her scoring average has climbed from last year's 22 to 27.1. Her rebounds are up from 10.6 to 16.1. But USC's 20-8 record, a source of pride to any normal team, is a comedown.

As the Trojans approach Friday's game here against Idaho, they are ranked only 15th nationally by the Associated Press and are seeded only third in their own West Regional, behind Long Beach State and Georgia. This is a tribute to the McGee twins, Pam and Paula, who shared the USC front line with Miller last year but have since graduated. Miller says she misses them in more ways than one.

"My freshman and sophomore years, I would look at the twins and they would just amaze me," she said. "In the locker room, they would never show any emotion on their faces. You would think those women were never excited before a game."

She remembers the calming influence this had on her, and has tried to pass it on to teammates who now depend heavily on Miller: "This year, I'm definitely a leader, both on and off the court."

This extends to Coach Linda Sharp's emphasis on all her players graduating with their class. Miller took 19 units last term and earned a B average. This term, she has 15 units -- astronomy, religion, sports management and broadcasting.

Her family is everywhere, giving Miller something to lean on now that everyone is leaning on her. Saul Miller Sr. has put thousands of extra miles on his white Datsun travelling the San Bernadino Freeway to see every one of his children's home games.

Even in high school, Cheryl Miller was a lively, candid and articulate subject for interviewers, and those media skills have only increased. She is a communications major and talks of a career in sportscasting, where some professionals have told her "I would have it made."

Miller has grown to love cameras. A simple news feature last summer in which she sampled gowns on Rodeo Drive found her milking the moment for all it was worth, eyebrows bouncing, smile incandescent.

After reviewing her many options, an interviewer gets the firm impression what she really wants is to do is act. The visitor looks surprised and asks the inevitable question, is there really any place for a 6-foot-3 actress?

Miller suddenly becomes very quiet, and fixes the questioner with the kind of look opposing forwards have learned to fear. "There is always a place for somebody," she says, "who really wants it bad enough."