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Paul Doyle | The Hartford Courant | March 31, 2017

UConn's Gabby Williams embraces X-factor role

  Gabby Williams has stepped up in all facets of the game for the Huskies this season.

The play ends with a feat of jaw-dropping athleticism, Gabby Williams leaping over an opponent in a single bound and snatching the ball.

But it all begins with the brain. Williams, intuitive and intelligent, positions herself in just the right space on the floor. She studies the nuances of her opponent's body, she reads the trajectory of the shot and processes where it will rattle off the rim.

Then, she springs into action.

"She thinks the right way to be the kind of player she is," Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said earlier this month.

UConn fans have been witnessing the show all season. An undersized former guard who was a reserve last season, Williams has been a dynamic player in a season full of dynamic performances.

She is among the best defensive players in the country, thriving against bigger post players. She is also the best all-around player on the best team in the country, filling the stat sheet with rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and points.

As UConn moves into its 10th consecutive Final Four, the team's improbable rise will be a common theme all weekend. How did the program manage to avoid a loss after watching three of the best players in college basketball graduate off a four-time national champion?

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Sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson have been elite scorers, earning All-America and national player of the year consideration. Junior Kia Nurse has emerged as a perimeter scoring threat while providing defense and stability at guard, while senior Saniya Chong has been a steady force all season.

But the exclamation point on the season wears No. 15.

Williams (14.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists) is a human highlight reel, the player who has been drawing gasps from crowds in gyms all over the country. She was called the best basketball player in the country by ESPN's Jay Bilas, and opposing coaches have been marveling at her athleticism for the past four months.

"Her legs are like springs," Albany coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. "She just gets up and rises above the other player."

There is an audacity to her game, as the 5-foot-11 Williams continually outperforms players who tower over her. But she can be hard on herself, and her confidence has sometimes waned over her three seasons at UConn.

Geno Auriemma attributes it to the physical setback following two surgical procedures on her knee. Williams was limited as a junior and senior at Reed High in Sparks, Nevada, so she came to UConn as a relatively inexperienced player.

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"In her basketball life this is her second year of playing basketball," Auriemma said. "This is her second year of basketball in the last four years."

She is also hyper competitive and struggled with failure.

"If it was dominoes, if it was checkers, if it was horseshoes, she would just figure out how to win," said Williams' father, Matt. "She's just a perfectionist."

So imagine the difficulty two years ago. Still recovering from her second knee injury and working herself back into basketball shape, she changed position. All those transitions as a freshman — from guard to forward, from high school to college, from Nevada to Connecticut — tested her.

Williams did not leave the bench in the second game of her freshman year. That happened to be UConn's last loss, 88-86 in overtime at Stanford. Auriemma said the team could not trust her, so she sat.

"I never wanted to feel like that again ... almost helpless," Williams said. "I knew that if I would have played in that game, I would have messed everything up. I wasn't prepared the way I should have for that game. So I had to think of, what am I going to bring to this program now, for myself and for my teammates? Because I don't ever want to feel like I'm not a part of anything."

She hasn't missed a game since. There have still been moments of self doubt, even this season. But the confidence has risen as she has continually succeeded at the highest level.

"When she's going good, she feel like she's on top of the world," Auriemma said. "And when she's not, she gets a little bit tentative. Those doubts have been less and less and less. But freshman year? It dominated her. Those thoughts dominated her and that's why she had a hard time playing. Now you look at her ... they show up once in awhile.

"Fortunately for us, every big game we've played on national television, those doubts didn't come to the arena. Somehow or another, they got lost on the way over."

She has been at her best against the best. She had 14 points against Baylor, 19 points and 12 rebounds at Notre Dame, 16 points and nine rebounds at Maryland, and 26 points and 14 rebounds against South Carolina.

In the NCAA tournament? She is averaging 23.3 points and 7.8 rebounds.

And when the environment was tough early in the season, Williams was often the calming influence. At Notre Dame, she gathered the team during a slide and told her teammate, "We got this."

The HBO behind-the-scene documentary series on UConn presented Williams as the team's den mother, making shrimp and grits for her teammates.

And consider this: Williams has been eating a vegan diet this year. But she'll cook anything for the Huskies.

"That's a good teammate," Katie Lou Samuelson said.

That also speaks to her willingness to transform herself into a post player because that's what her team needs. Williams is a well-documented elite athlete, finishing fifth in the high jump at the 2012 Olympic track and field trials at age 15. Yet the kid who reached such heights in an individual sport is the ultimate teammate.

Auriemma has raved about her intelligence and energy. She has the ability to connect with people, gravitating to a leadership role. She is politically and socially aware and active, she loves music — HBO did a segment on her vinyl collection and Williams shared her playlist with, including the song she's been playing before every game since middle school (Mac Dre's "Feelin' Myself") — and she'll do whatever necessary for her team.

"If Geno told her, next year I need you to go out and sell popcorn ... she's going to do it," Matt Williams said. "She's going to do whatever it takes to win. That's why she picked UConn over everybody else."

Williams picked UConn over Stanford, Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. Her father, who played at Nevada, coached her in AAU and Williams grew up around the game, playing all over the West Coast.

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Yet she transplanted herself to Connecticut in search of the highest level.

"And because of Geno and the day-to-day discipline ... it's taken her to another level," Matt Williams said. "I don't think there's another program in the country where you could get that."

Gabby said she still misses high jumping, especially as she watches her younger brother Matthew start his high school track career this year. But there is no regret for an athlete who could have been a 2016 Olympic contender had it not been for her knee injury.

"I don't ever think about what could have been," Williams said "I'm here. I'm here for a reason."

Next year, she will play in front of familiar faces when UConn plays at Nevada in her homecoming game. Not only did her father play for the program in Reno, but her sister Kayla was a forward for Nevada.

Will Williams be playing guard when she returns home? She could, but her ability to handle the ball and and pass makes her a unique post player. It's rare to have a post player with the hands of a guard.

And Williams believes her vertical leap will improve. She lost some height on her vertical leap after the surgeries, so she could leap even higher next season.

"When I came, I was just like, how can I help?" Williams said. "How can be a part of the team? It was helpful for me because being a post meant that was going to be more of a part of everything. I didn't see it as, 'Oh, I'm sacrificing.' ... I feel like I'm in a really good spot, too. I'm always right in the middle of the floor. I can find people really easily. I can use some of those guard skills. I like the position I'm in."

But if her outside shot improves, Williams could be a player UConn can use anywhere on the floor. And Williams is working endlessly on her perimeter shot.

Auriemma's eyes widen when he talks about Williams' future. She has made such strides in one season and there is still another season left.

"It's almost like, whatever position she decides to play, she's going to be able to play it," Auriemma said. "My big thing with her all year has been about expanding her game. Being a much better ball-handler in traffic. Being a much better shooter. ... Little by little, we're gaining on it."

This article is written by Paul Doyle from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to