She had gone through countless pregame warmups before. This one was different.
As former Reed hoops phenom Gabby Williams dropped in layups and shot uncontested jumpers before UConn’s season opener last November against West Chester (a 115-26 exhibition annihilation at the Huskies’ home arena, Gampel Pavilion, in Storrs, Conn.), she had to corral herself. This wasn’t Reed’s gym anymore.
“I just remember our first warmups. I wouldn’t say I was nervous. I was just taking it all in,” Williams reflected last Wednesday while home briefly for the summer. “One of my teammates asked me ‘Gabby, are you okay?’ and I was like ‘no, I’m good.’”
She wasn’t kidding. She played 18 minutes her first game as a Husky, just missing out on a double-double with nine points and 11 boards to go along with three steals. The strong debut was a sign of thing to come as the former Raider great went on to win the American Athletic Conference’s Sixth Player of the Year and was named to the AAC All-Freshman squad.
Williams was also named the conference’s Freshman of the Week three separate times.
She averaged 8.3 points and 5.7 boards throughout Connecticut’s 38-1 season as the Geno Auriemma led Huskies captured their third-straight national title and 10th in program history.
“I look back at it and I’m like holy. I couldn’t have asked for a better year,” she said.
Despite season-long success, she said she didn’t feel like she was truly contributing until the AAC Tournament. In the first game, a 93-34 demolition of Cincinnati, she scored 12 points and pulled in seven boards. In the semifinal 105-56 beat down of East Carolina, she again scored 12 points.
As the Huskies rolled into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed, William scored double digits twice and found the stat sheet in every contest with the exception of the national title game. She played three minutes in UConn’s 63-53 title game victory over Notre Dame.
“You can’t describe it. Even when it happened, I still didn’t believe it until a week later,” she said. “The place (Times Forum in Tampa Bay) was literally shaking. Just stepping on the court, you could just feel the energy from everybody.
“It was great just to step on the court because I know a lot of freshman in the past haven’t at all.”
The following week, she was on the cover of Sports Illustrated along with teammates hoisting Auriemma after winning the title. She hung out with former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb in the postgame celebration. And she earned a trip to the White House. The team plans to visit the nation’s capital in Washington to visit the president this fall.
But, of course, the successes of her freshman season didn’t come without their struggles—none of which included her twice-torn ACL in high school. Williams primarily played guard at Reed because of her athletic superiority. Standing at 5-11, Auriemma had larger plans for her, moving her to the post.
“The learning curve was crazy for me because I had to switch positions … I’ll never forget that meeting,” Williams said. “I think I started off playing kind of scared but I learned how fun it was to go by people who are a lot slower than me. Usually, I’m the big slow guard but now I’m the quick one in the post.”
This offseason, one of her first not spent rehabbing her knee, she plans to work on her outside shot. A legitimate deep threat would force the athletically inferior defending posts to follow Williams away from the basket, where she could then utilize her quickness to the rim.
“I just want to pick up a bigger role on the team,” she said.
You saw her on the cover of Sports Illustrated—typical home to the biggest sports stars in the world. You saw her on national TV playing in the biggest women’s college basketball games the sport has to offer. And you will see her at the White House.
Next year, with a developing game, you’ll likely see even more of her. But this time, her teammates won’t have to ask her if she’s okay.
They’ll know it.
What about track?
Williams finished fifth at the USA Olympic trials in the high jump as a sophomore in high school with little training and originally planned on attempting to qualifying for the 2016 games in Rio.
As of now, that idea has been tabled. Combining the schedule that comes along with competing on the best women’s college basketball team in the nation and mixing it with high jump training would be a lot to digest.
Williams has not given up on the idea of competing once her career at UConn is over, however.
What about offseason hoops?
Williams tried out for the national 19U (19 and under) team and made the squad as an alternate. She will not practice with the team and will only be called upon barring an injury or someone leaving the team for an unforeseen reason.
How is the knee holding up?
Williams re-tore her ACL in the middle of her senior season at Reed and left for Storrs, Conn. early last year to start the rehab process with the Connecticut staff.
She said her right knee is still behind its counterpart but doesn’t plan on both knees being at equal strength for years to come.
“It’s still hard for it to catch up with the left leg. That’s just how it is. That takes years,” she said. “But it felt great.”