Even by their standards, the UConn women’s basketball team has been sort of a surprise this season. After losing three star players, Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, and facing eight ranked teams in their first 15 games, few saw the Huskies remaining perfect and extending their win-streak to a new NCAA record of 94 after Tuesday’s win over East Carolina.
With that many holes to fill and so many tough opponents early on, fans and even head coach Geno Auriemma expected a handful of losses along the way. Those early losses, of course, never came. Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier have risen to the occasion, shouldering a bulk of the scoring and rebounding load and making the most out of their increase in minutes. But while Samuelson, Collier and junior Kia Nurse have been fantastic, none have been more consistent and had a bigger impact than Gabby Williams.
This was on display more than ever in the win over the Pirates, where Williams did something that even former greats like Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart never did: record a triple-double. Her 16-point, 16-rebound and 10-assist game in the 91-44 win over the Pirates marked just the fifth triple-double in UConn history.
When she stepped on campus, Williams showed flashes of her potential, but was rough around the edges. Three years later, she has become one of the most dynamic players in college basketball due to her athleticism and work ethic. It’s not just me or people of Connecticut who think that either; ESPN’s Jay Bilas thinks pretty highly of her too.
“Gabby Williams is the most complete player in the country – men or women,” Bilas said on last Saturday’s College Gameday. He’s not wrong, either.
In her first two years, Williams was known primarily for her freakish athletic ability. By simply being more athletic than everyone else, Williams could change the game off the bench by hauling in rebounds on both ends, finishing around the rim on offense and being able to guard practically anyone on defense. As an underclassman, that’s pretty impressive.
Williams has had a knack for improving on her weaknesses. After shooting just 45 percent from the free throw line as a freshman, Williams tirelessly worked over the summer and shot 75 percent from the charity stripe last season while adding some midrange game to her skills down low.
Increasing your free throw percentage by 30 percent is remarkable. It shows the talent and dedication that’s necessary to be successful at UConn. So it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise to anyone that with more minutes for grabs and more opportunities on the table.
Williams has been better than ever this season, and not just for her scoring and rebounding, but also for her tremendous growth as a distributor.
Prior to this season, Williams’ career-high in assists was five against Tulsa on Jan. 6, 2016. So far this season, she’s equaled or surpassed that number in 13 of UConn’s 19 games this season, including a new career-high of 10 against DePaul and in her historic ECU game.
With her 10 assists against East Carolina, Williams now has 102 assists in 18 games. Prior to this season, she had 101 assists in her first two seasons combined, a total of 76 games.
This newfound skill as an elite passer has made Williams a centerpiece in an efficient UConn offense, transforming her into a nightly triple-double threat that finally came to fruition against the Pirates. She’s even more of a nightmare in the post now. She can take her opponent the hoop or hit a cutter at the basket for an easy bucket. Pick your poison.
It’s hard for someone as good as Williams to go unnoticed, yet somehow it still happened. While Samuelson is scoring seemingly at will and Collier dominates at both ends, Williams plays a crucial role in her team’s offensive success, getting her teammates easy looks when defenses collapse on Williams down low. Samuelson and Collier, along with Kia Nurse, are fantastic players on their own. But with Williams, they’re even better.
Yet somehow, Williams has been overlooked. While she is nominated for the Naismith Award along with Nurse, Samuelson and Collier, Williams is notably absent from the Wooden Award watchlist. It’s not that people don’t know the talent that’s in Storrs. Stewart won the award last year, and Nurse, Samuelson and Collier are on this year’s list.
Would it be unfair to have four members on a 25-player watchlist? Maybe, but leaving Williams off is a travesty. You’d be hard-pressed to find 10, let alone 25, better than Williams. The snub, as egregious as it is, won’t bother Williams though. She has her eyes on a different prize: to lead her team to a fifth straight national championship. That’s a bigger and better accomplishment than any watchlist or award can offer.