When Gabby Williams graduated from Reed in 2014 and headed to UConn to play for legendary coach Geno Auriemma, she had an idea what she was getting into. At least she thought she did.
At that point, Auriemma and the Huskies had just won their ninth national title. It was the second in four years, which feels like slump for the historic program.
But now it’s getting hard for her to comprehend.
College basketball savant Jay Bilas has said she’s the toughest and “most complete” player in the nation – on the women’s and men’s side. Fellow ESPN analyst Doris Burke thinks she’s the most athletic player in the country. She has become one of the faces of the game.
“I mean this is beyond what I even imagined,” Williams said. “You never really think about what you’re going to be at the program, especially when you first get here and see how hard it is … I never expected this in a million years.”
The junior has seen a methodical increase in time and productivity over her two and a half seasons in Storrs, Conn. She came off the bench in all 38 games as a freshman and was named the American Athletic Conference Sixth Player of the Year. She started 12 games as a sophomore. This year, Williams has started all 26 games and is third on the team in scoring (13.1 ppg), second in rebounding (8.6 rpg) and leads the team in both assists (5.3 apg) and steals (2.8 bpg).
In late January, she recorded just the fifth triple-double in UConn women’s basketball history. She finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a 91-44 win at East Carolina. She pleads she wasn’t aware of her historic effort until her teammates “started jumping up and down on the bench” once she got it.
Two weeks ago, she was named to the Wooden Award Late Season Top 20. The award annually honors the best player in the nation.
She credits her “trust in the process” for her rise, however, it’s not something she saw coming heading into her junior campaign. Despite the national spotlight, she has maintained the same humility she displayed following wins over the likes of Reno and Spanish Springs. The diffidence even bubbles into insecurity at times.
“I definitely have taken myself by surprise honestly, just as far as how much of a role I’ve had to fill in for,” Williams said. “I didn’t think I’d be able to step up this much.
“I go through some lulls where my confidence is really low … I think I just put a little too much pressure (on myself), and that ends up being worse for me. I just stay calm and play the game I know how to play and things come together for me.”
They came together for her in a big way last Monday night. Williams exploded for a career-high 26 points as the Huskies extended their NCAA-record winning streak to 100 games with a 66-55 home win over No. 6 South Carolina.
It was the most watched ESPN2 college basketball broadcast of the season (including men’s) and the highest-rated women’s college basketball regular season game since 2010.
“I still can’t even wrap my head around it,” Williams said of the triple-digit winning streak. “I know it’s kind of corny to say, but we really do take things one game at a time, one practice at a time … Nobody is ever going to be able to take this away from us.”
Said Auriemma of Williams after her 26-point, 14-rebound night against the Gamecocks: “She is an extraordinary talent, and you hear that word a lot you know. You hear that word that she is a special player, or this special, but you know there is nothing special about Gabby. You know, I think the term special gets thrown around like its ordinary, she’s not special, what she is is just an extraordinary athlete who understands that she is and she tries to live up to it and not everyone does that. Her basketball skills have caught up to her extraordinary talent. There is nobody like her in college basketball.”
The last time UConn lost a game came on Nov. 17, 2014 at Stanford, an 88-86 overtime defeat.
Williams did not play in the game, but has not-so-fond memories. She’s one of four players on the roster who suited up for the contest in Palo Alto.
“It was the worst feeling ever,” Williams said. “I remember Kiah Stokes was in foul trouble and I was probably going to be the (one) who went in if she fouled out. I was just thinking, ‘if I go in, I’m going to embarrass myself.’ I was not prepared at all to be in that game.
“I think after that game, I turned it around.”
She, and the rest of the program.
Led by Williams, the Huskies are once again the runaway favorites to win what would be their fifth straight national title and 12th overall.
She’s pondered winning the Wooden Award, winning another national title on April 2 in Dallas, and even eventually a career in the WNBA, but for now, she prefers to be corny. She’s taking it day to day.
“I still know there’s a lot of things I need to work on,” Williams said. “I’m definitely not satisfied at all with where I’m at. At the same time, it’s also motivating. Now it’s in reach. I can get that.”