After an Unsure Start, Gabby Williams Soars at UConn
“This entire team is really anxious about that,” Williams said. “Last year, we had guys, they knew how to win a national championship and they had done it before. We know how, but we’ve never had to do it ourselves.”
She does not appear overwhelmed by the responsibility.
In Saturday’s tournament opener, Williams delivered 20 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 5 steals and a blocked shot as UConn overwhelmed Albany, 116-55. Such resourceful performances validate what Jay Bilas, the ESPN announcer, said of Williams: She is the most complete college basketball player in the country, male or female.
Her ball-handling and jump-shooting skills need refining, but there is a calm, floating assurance about Williams. The elegant way she imposes herself on a game with her vision, positioning and anticipation. Her ability not only to jump high, but also to quickly jump a second time, a third time. Her graceful, bounding glide, always on the balls of her feet, as if there is an unseen high-jump bar to clear.
Standing about eight feet from the basket against Albany, Williams rose over the back of a player three and a half inches taller and snatched a rebound without fouling. Another time, she hovered in the lane, legs scissored, cradling a rebound in one arm.
“Williams has to be maybe one of the most athletic players ever,” said Joanna Bernabei-McNamee, the Albany coach. “Some of those rebounds she grabs are very phenomenal. Her legs are like springs.”
As Williams’s basketball skills have expanded in college, so has her social awareness. In an interview in December with The New Haven Register, Williams said she wanted to become a community organizer.
“I am going to be a black female after basketball,” she told the newspaper. “I want to make sure every day that I am trying to make a difference.”
Speaking to The New York Times as the N.C.A.A. tournament opened, Williams said that while basketball consumed much of her time during the season, she tried to attend meetings at UConn’s African American Cultural Center whenever possible. The election of President Trump has prompted anxious discussions about treatment of women, minorities and immigrants, and she has eagerly taken part in them.
“I’m glad these issues are finally being talked about,” Williams said. “It’s cool to see people who are more motivated, like, ‘What can I do now?’”
If things had gone as planned in high school, Williams would have returned to UConn’s basketball team this season after taking a year away from the game to try to qualify for the high jump at the Rio Olympics.
“Now I realize just how almost impossible that was, to think it was going to be so easy just to take a year off,” Williams said with a laugh.
That is what 15-year-olds are supposed to think, that life is infinite possibility. But her plans were circumscribed when Williams’s right knee crumpled with a torn anterior cruciate ligament midway through her junior season in high school. She injured the knee again as a senior. A second surgery followed.
When she was cleared to resume athletic activities, she said, “I kind of had a realization that I wanted to do basketball more than I wanted to do track.”
But Williams arrived at UConn in the fall of 2014 neither fully fit nor confident. “I just wasn’t ready for that level of competition,” she said. “I kind of got down on myself all the time.”
On Nov. 17, 2014, UConn played what would become a signpost game at Stanford. The Huskies lost, 88-86 in overtime, ending a 47-game winning streak. They had not lost in 108 games played since, entering Monday. But Williams also remembers that game for a different reason. She did not play a single minute.
Coach Geno Auriemma did not yet trust her. Her teammates did not yet trust her. She did not trust herself. After Williams missed large stretches of her final two seasons in high school, Auriemma said, she was asking herself, “Can I do this or not?”
Doubt, he said, consumed her. After the Stanford game, Williams said, “I never wanted to feel that way again.” She told herself: “I need to find a role on this team. I need to find a way that I can help.”
This season she became a full-time starter. While she remains a work in progress, Williams played some of her most thorough games during the regular season against teams that are now fellow No. 1 seeds in the N.C.A.A. tournament: 19 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals against Notre Dame. A career-high 26 points, along with 14 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 steals, against South Carolina.
She was named defensive player of the year in the American Athletic Conference and became only the fifth UConn player to collect a triple-double, with 16 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists against East Carolina.
“It’s easy to underappreciate her,” Maya Moore, a former UConn star, said of Williams. “But if you watch the game and understand all the ways she’s impacting it, it’s mind-blowing to see that night after night. She’s grown into that, to be able to be counted on in so many areas of the game.”
Doubts still affect Williams “once in a while,” Auriemma said, “but fortunately for us, every big game we played on national television, those doubts didn’t come to the arena.”
“Somehow or another,” he added, “they got lost on the way over.”
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