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Williams Evolving Into A Leader On And Off Court For Huskies (By Rich Elliott)

POSTED November 30, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

HARTFORD – Forget for a minute the gaudy statistics that All-Americans Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck took with them to the WNBA last spring. That was only part of the void the UConn women’s basketball team needed to fill this season.

The leadership provided by the Big Three was equally as valuable. Players needed to step up. Players needed to know who they can go to in times of need during both practice and games. Junior forward Gabby Williams has evolved into one of these influential players for the second-ranked Huskies.

It was a role Williams worked diligently to craft during the preseason. And through the first five games, her leadership has been noticeable vocally and in her performance. Tuesday’s 80-43 victory over Chattanooga before 6,090 at the XL Center was a fine example as she totaled 11 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and established season-highs with four steals and 28 minutes.

``I think what’s changed for me mostly is just how much of a leader I have to be,’’ Williams said. ``I also know that my teammates trust me. If they need to come to me or something or if things are getting out of whack I can be the guy that can help get us back together.’’

``I’m still working on it. I think me and Kia (Nurse) are both working on it. But I think we are getting better every day and we’re learning our team and how we can help each other.’’

Williams, who was named The American Sixth Player of the Year last season, posted her second straight double-double and has at least 10 rebounds in three straight games. She recorded four double-doubles and reached double figures in rebounding five times in 38 games last season.

Williams is averaging 11.8 points, 3.2 assists and team-highs of 8.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 24.8 minutes this season. The alterations she has made to her game have certainly caught the eye of UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

``Consistent. Her conditioning is so much better. Her understanding of what she can do, what she wants to do. Her ability to like when to do what,’’ Auriemma said. ``Gabby used to just make up her mind as she crossed halfcourt even before she got the ball … `This is what I’m going to do when I get it.’ And now she has a great temperament out on the floor. She doesn’t get rushed. She doesn’t allow herself to get out of her comfort zone. And she goes after every rebound.

``I would say of all the players on our team I think Gabby’s been the one that’s gotten the most out of what we want her to get out of this season. If she stays out of foul trouble, she’s something special. There’s very few people that can do what she can do.’’

The Huskies (5-0) extended their winning streak to 80 games.

Freshman point guard Crystal Dangerfield did not play after suffering a concussion during a collision in the win against Dayton Nov. 22. Auriemma said that she remains in concussion protocol.

Dangerfield’s status for Thursday’s match-up against No. 15 DePaul at Gampel Pavilion is unclear.

``I don’t really know that much about the ins and outs of how that stuff works,’’ Auriemma said. ``I just know there’s like four different steps that you’ve got to go through. And she went through two of them (Tuesday), which was really good. One (Wednesday). If she’s good to go then one on Thursday at shootaround and then she’ll be good to go on Thursday night. So if she gets a thumbs-up on all of them then she can play Thursday night. If one of them is a no-go then she’s no-go.’’

Napheesa Collier, who made her final 11 field goals of the game, led the Huskies with 23 points (11-of-12 FG), four rebounds and four assists. Katie Lou Samuelson added 19 points and five rebounds, while Nurse had 12 points, three rebounds and four assists.

Chattanooga cut UConn’s lead to 43-33 after Keiana Gilbert opened the second half with a jumper. The Huskies then buried the Mocs with a 28-3 run over the next 10:38.

Williams produced two points, three defensive rebounds, two assists and two steals during the 7:52 she was on the floor during the surge.

``I think Gabby’s grown so much,’’ said Collier, who scored 10 points in the game-breaking run. ``Her confidence and aggression is just on a whole new level. We know what we’re getting from her. She’s going to work every time. She’s going to score those easy buckets down low. She’ll take it to the basket. I think she’s a pretty reliable player.’’

Seemingly one of the few limitations right now for Williams is some leg discomfort that she is currently experiencing. She did not play in the fourth quarter, playing just 8:45 in the second half.

``I’m just getting a little tightness and cramping,’’ Williams said. ``I should be fine. I’m not worried. We’re going to just figure it out over the next couple days before anything gets worse. It’s not my knee. It’s not anything like joints or anything. It’s all muscle we think.’’

Jasmine Joyner had nine points, 10 rebounds and three steals for Chattanooga (3-6). The Mocs, who were 5-of-30 from the field in the second half, have lost four straight games.

Beginning Thursday against DePaul, the Huskies will face a stretch of three straight games against ranked opponents and five in seven overall in December. They will meet No. 14 Texas Sunday in the Jimmy V Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena and travel to No. 1 Notre Dame Dec. 7.

UConn will also travel to unbeaten Kansas State (6-0) Dec. 11, host No. 9 Ohio State at the XL Center Dec. 19 before ending the month at No. 5 Maryland Dec. 29.

``I hope these ranked teams are as good as everybody say they are because we need to get our (butt) beat and soon and bad so that some of our guys will come to realize that this is not as easy as they think it is,’’ Auriemma said. ``I’m sure Thursday night … I know they’re good. And I know Texas is good. And I know the team we’re playing next Wednesday is really good. So I’m hoping all the teams after that are really, really, really good because we need a good old-fashioned (butt)-kicking right about now.’’

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