Before she became a one-woman destroyer of excellent teams in big games, Gabby Williams was an undersized, unpolished athlete who excelled as a role player at UConn.
To watch her neutralize South Carolina’s heralded low-post tandem of Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson—as Williams did especially well down the stretch Monday in UConn’s historic 66-55 victory—is to marvel at so much more than the 100th consecutive win for a program that continues to eclipse its own astounding records.
In a season in which a supposedly rebuilding UConn was thought to be ripe for dethroning, the Huskies instead continue to demonstrate the extraordinary qualities of a program with 11 NCAA championships, including the last four in a row.
Williams, a former Nevada prep track and basketball standout, best symbolizes this seamless transition from the Breanna Stewart era.
A reserve for most of her first two seasons, the 5-foot-11 Williams scored a career-high 26 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and had four assists, four steals and two blocked shots while playing all 40 minutes.
Just as she did in equalling her previous career high of 19 points at Notre Dame in early December, Williams was all over the floor, her usual menacing self on defense and creating scoring chances for herself and her teammates.
Not bad for a Top 20 senior prospect who wasn’t much of a shooter or passer coming out of high school, and whose college start was also hampered by knee injuries that affected her confidence.
“There is no one else like her in women’s college basketball,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who’s had several players under his tutelage that have amply fit that description. Some of them, including Husky legends Stewart, Sue Bird and Maya Moore, were in attendance Monday at a packed, electric Gampel Pavilion.
“It is not like she’s only doing it against teams she overwhelms with her ability,” Auriemma said of Williams, whom he termed a “special player” whose basketball skills are catching up with her talent. “She has done it in the biggest games against the best teams.”
No. 1 UConn pushed its record to 25-0, with seven of those wins coming against most of the rest of the women’s national elite: Florida State, Baylor, Texas, Notre Dame, Maryland, Ohio State and now South Carolina.
This was a rugged non-conference schedule Auriemma surely thought would toughen up his thin, refigured rotation. After dodging a last-second shot in the season opener to win by two against FSU, UConn also dug out late wins against Baylor and Notre Dame (both by 11) and at Maryland (by 7).
The Gamecocks, also touting Final Four-caliber talent, hung close until the fourth quarter, never able to get untracked offensively from the perimeter, where their starting guards shot a combined 7-for-28. UConn’s backcourt wasn’t clicking either, with Katie Lou Samuelson struggling and Kia Nurse limited with an ankle injury. Williams led the way for UConn, with this telling number among so many: Six of her boards came on the offensive glass, where she effectively battled the much taller Coates and Wilson all night.
“I don’t know what was bigger, her rebounding or her heart,” Auriemma said.
Sophomore forward Napheesa Collier added 18 points and had nine rebounds for the Huskies, who have four remaining regular season games, all in the American Athletic Conference, where they have never lost.
“We didn’t return any All-Americans. No one really knew who was going to be ‘The Guy’ or guys that would take over,” Williams said. “We’ve all taken a piece of it, a piece of responsibility. That’s what made us different. We don’t have that star player.”
Williams has become that player on a UConn team that clearly revels in the challenge of living up to what’s come before. Even the loquacious Auriemma has been at a loss to describe what’s unfolded this season, as a record winning streak continues on, likely into the NCAA tournament.
“Somebody said to me, ‘What do you guys do that nobody else does?” Auriemma said. “I said, ‘I can’t answer that question. It wouldn’t make any sense to you. You can’t describe how Gabby Williams can come in here and not have any expectations of ever being Maya Moore and make a Maya Moore performance tonight exactly when she needed it, the way it needed to be done.
“Did we know it was going to happen? No. We just know that when we recruit kids, it’s going to happen. We trust them, they believe it, because it is expected. We don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it has a tendency to happen in the biggest moments. I can’t explain why. It just is.”