STORRS, Conn. -- Gabby Williams never backs down from a tough defensive assignment.
Fortunately, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team's junior forward is always well prepared, thanks, in part, to Huskies' newcomer Azura Stevens.
"Z is one of those people who if you can guard her, you can guard anyone in the country pretty much," Williams said. "She's a huge threat inside with her height and the way she can finish. It's hard to close out on her because she has a foot on you. She makes things more competitive. You really have to step your game up when she's at practice."
Stevens is sitting out this season due to NCAA transfer rules, but she is a force at practice, whether it's scrimmaging against All-American candidates Williams or Napheesa Collier or doing drills with associate head coach Chris Dailey and assistant Marisa Moseley. During games, she does her best to support and encourage her teammates.
She may not see the results of her work when UConn plays a game, but that time will come.
"The coaches have done an amazing job, especially CD and Marisa, trying to help me with my game," Stevens said. "They never cast me to the side. They're always helping me as if I am playing in games. And my teammates treat me like I'm playing. When I'm out there with them in practice, we're all in this together. When I'm on the bench in the game they look at me for support. There's no stigma that I'm not playing.
"I have definitely made strides. I'm learning to go harder, play like a UConn player, which is definitely a challenge but it's fun when you work so hard for something and you see the rewards. I'm waiting for that next year."
Stevens can hardly wait till next year. The 6-foot-6 wing, an all-Atlantic Coast Conference first-team selection at Duke a season ago, will have two years of eligibility remaining at the start of the 2017-18 campaign. She will have the option of entering the 2018 WNBA Draft with her original class but there's no indication at this point that choice is even under consideration.
When the No. 1 Huskies take the floor at Gampel Pavilion for Saturday's American Athletic Conference game against SMU (SNY, 2 p.m.), Stevens and fellow transfer Batouly Camara will take their seats on the bench and lead the cheers.
"It's hard to watch in the sense that I can't play," Stevens said. "But this team is so amazing and this program is so wonderful that, surprisingly, it's been easy to sit out. It's a show every night. I see how hard we work in practice every day. To see how that work translates to the games is amazing."
Stevens, a native of Raleigh, North Carolina was second in the ACC in scoring (18.9) and led the league in rebounding (9.6) and double-doubles (14) her sophomore year at Duke. She made an early impression on the Huskies and their fans as a freshman when she scored a team-high 16 points in the Blue Devils' 83-52 loss to UConn at the XL Center in Hartford on Dec. 29, 2014.
So while a number of programs -- including UConn -- will bring in top 20 high school recruits next season, the Huskies will be adding someone who has to be considered to be among the top 20 players nationally.
"It's difficult coming to practice every day and not being able to play in games," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "But I can see why she had the success that she had at Duke. I can see why she was first team all-ACC. There aren't a lot of things you have to do in the game of basketball that she doesn't do pretty well. So when you have those kind of skills, you can impact the game a lot of ways. I see her do it every day in practice."
And practices are her games. When the Huskies scrimmage, she gets to play against the nation's top team. When they do drills, as much is demanded of her as any of her teammates that do get into games.
Her goal is to get better with each day.
"The one thing I try to work on is bringing energy because I know some of the other players need to get rest because they're playing in games," Stevens said. "I'm really trying to be more vocal and that's been kind of an uphill battle for me. And I'm trying to get better, trying to learn as much as I can whether it's the offenses or defenses. I'm trying to absorb as much as I can so when the time comes next season I'm ready to go."
Stevens said that her teammates have been great keeping her involved during games and practices and making sure that she's a part of everything going on. Auriemma, though, notes that's not his active players' job.
"It's up to Z to keep herself involved," he said. "And I don't think I've seen a kid come into a program from another school and handle it better than she's handled it. She's been amazing. I can't say enough positive things about her approach since the day she stepped on campus. It's been incredible."
There is one difficult part of sitting out that transfers deal with and that's watching the road games on television. Transfers do not travel at the school's expense.
But prior to the game at Maryland on Dec. 29, Stevens and Camara bought bus tickets and took the ride to College Park. They were on the bench at the Xfinity Center as UConn built a 19-point lead and held on for an 87-81 win that is still the third-ranked Terrapins' only loss of the season.
It was important to them to be there.
"We knew it would be a really challenging game and we wanted to support our teammates," Stevens said. "It was so fun being in that environment and to watch us pull together and pull out that victory. It was really special."
UConn (23-0 overall, 11-0 AAC) has continued its winning ways. The Huskies defeated SMU (13-10, 4-6) 88-48 on Jan. 14 for their record-breaking 91st consecutive win. A victory Saturday will set up a showdown with No. 6 South Carolina here Monday and a shot at 100 wins in a row.
But no matter what happens this weekend, Stevens will be back at practice next week and back to work with November and her debut nine months away.
"I'm working on everything, and when I say that I mean doing all aspects better," Stevens said. "Like shooting when I'm tired, because that's something I had never thought of before. Creating a better down low game, helping my teammates on defense ... I'm just trying to get better at everything."
According to her hall-of-fame coach, she is succeeding.
"She's a better player now in a lot of different ways," Auriemma said. "I think some of the things we do are different than they do at any other school. It takes a lot to figure that out and it's a lot to pick up. Mentally, you have to be really engaged. Physically, you're going to be challenged by a lot of different situations. Maybe it's because there's not a lot of pressure on her right now. But I see a big difference in her now from October.
"I can't wait to get Z on the court next year."