When Gabby Williams talks about how far she's come in the last four years, it has little to do with the distance she traveled to be part of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team.
The journey hits home for the Sparks, Nevada, native Tuesday night when the senior All-American leads the top-ranked Huskies onto the floor in neighboring Reno for a game with the University of Nevada at the Lawlor Events Center.
"I want to show the people that saw me play in high school that I'm now a totally different player," Williams said. "I want to show them how much I've improved, and how I am a different player in the new position that I'm in. And I'm excited for that. But then I have a lot of friends who don't even understand basketball that much, and they're just excited to see me play in person and see and meet my teammates. That's exciting for me, too.
"I'm not sure if anything will surprise them about me because I really haven't been home in such a long time to see everybody. There are friends that I haven't seen since I lived there in high school. I have no idea what they'll expect, but they'll see someone who is more mature and they'll see how I've jelled with my teammates."
Coach Geno Auriemma and UConn put the homecoming game with Nevada together last winter. Williams' family has strong ties to the school as her father Matt (1988-91) and sister Kayla (2008-12) played basketball for the Wolf Pack.
While Nevada welcomed the opportunity to host the 11-time national champions, UConn also got help from Seton Hall, which accommodated the Huskies by pushing back a home-and-home series deal by one year to give UConn the opening to schedule Nevada.
"I never thought that I would have an opportunity to play in Nevada during my career," Williams said. "When Coach told me I didn't believe him at first because it just seemed crazy."
With the Huskies already scheduled to be on the west coast to play UCLA and in the Nike PK80 Invitational in Oregon, the trip to the "The Biggest Little City in the World" made sense and fell into place.
It will be UConn's first meeting with Nevada and its first game in The Silver State since visiting UNLV 20 years ago.
"It's a lot different than in Connecticut," Williams said with a laugh. "Coming to Connecticut was a shock for me as far as the culture and people and living on a farm. I was used to the city. We think of Reno/Sparks as a big city. Then I come here to UConn." And she has thrived.
But she first made a name for herself in Sparks as a basketball and track star. As a sophomore at Reed High, she led the basketball team to the Class 4A state championship in the winter and then in the spring finished fifth in the high jump at the 2012 United States Olympic Track and Field trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, with a leap of 6'2.25" -- the sixth-best ever for a high school athlete. UConn's win over Michigan State on Saturday in the PK80 Invitational was her first time back in Eugene since the trials.
"It always seemed like I could jump higher than anyone," Williams said. "I remember playing basketball for my uncle's boys team when I was really young. Then I got into track, and track is really big in Nevada, too. I tried to do every sport that was offered when I was in middle school.
"But my mom didn't let me do a whole lot of sports because they were too boring for her to watch," Williams added with a smile. "She didn't let me play soccer. She didn't let me play softball. My whole family played basketball, so that was a no-brainer. Track was one of those things that clicked. I remember hearing in middle school that if I were in high school I would have won states. So I stayed with it."
She was recruited by colleges for both basketball and track and entertained the possibility that she would take the 2015-16 season off from basketball to train in the high jump for a shot at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph saw Williams play for the first time in January, 2013.
A day later, Williams tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee and had surgery. Still wearing a brace on the knee, Williams made an unofficial to UConn that March the weekend the Huskies hosted Idaho and Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament at Gampel Pavilion. By the time she arrived back in Nevada, she was convinced UConn was the right spot for her and committed three days later.
"I had been talking to the coaches and had narrowed things down by that point," Williams said. "Part of me kind of rushed the decision because of my ACL tear so that is why things were narrowed down. I talked to the schools that I was interested in a lot. Coming to UConn was a no-brainer. I had visited other places as well. But there was just something about the culture at UConn and how close the team was.
There was a sense of pride that the coaches and players and alumni had in the tradition here. It drives you and I wanted to be a part of it."
As a freshman, she was the American Athletic Conference's Sixth Man Award winner and a member of the all-freshman team. As a sophomore, she led the league in field-goal percentage for the second straight year and stepped into the starting lineup for injured Katie Lou Samuelson and had nine points, eight rebounds, and three assists as the Huskies won an unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship by beating Syracuse in Indianapolis.
She followed with a breakout junior year that saw her named an All-American by the WBCA, USBWA, and Associated Press and the WBCA's and AAC's Defensive Player of the Year. She recorded the fifth triple-double in UConn history last Jan. 24 at East Carolina (16 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists) and joined the 1,000-point club on Feb. 22. She was chosen to the AAC, NCAA Bridgeport Regional, and NCAA Final Four all-tournament teams.
Through five games of her senior season, she is averaging 11.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 2.8 steals.
"I'm more mature, my work ethic and level of competitiveness is higher," Williams said. "This is program that if you don't meet the demands, you get left behind. Coach always says how guys do better when they don't have a choice, and I'm one of those guys. I wanted to be successful. I didn't want to be left behind."
She has stepped forward, not only as one of the nation's best players but as a leader on and off the court.
On Oct. 11 in her final tweet before the start of practice she wrote, "didn't think I'd ever make it this far." She hopes her next tweet will come soon after the national championship game set for April 1 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
"It's not a specific milestone or anything like that I was thinking about," Williams said. "It was more in a sense of coming from where I started from, and even not talking about UConn but how I grew up in the basketball world, it's not something I expected. I didn't expect to have the opportunities I've had. I didn't expect to have the responsibilities I have.
"Being an All-American and winning national championships, you don't come in here and have those things handed to you. On my recruiting visit, it's not like Coach said, 'Hey, if you come here, you're going to be an All-American.' That wasn't the case. You go through it, and you buy into what they do, and you realize how hard it is to get all the stuff I have and we have. I think that was what the tweet meant. I didn't know I'd make it this far, just that I was getting a great opportunity.
"It's not that I didn't have expectations for myself. I came to UConn because I knew they would push me past my limits and my expectations. Just when you finally get here you go through so much that there's no way you're getting through it and you finally do ... It was more me looking back and saying, 'Wow, look at what I've done.' And I'm not done yet."
The Huskies (5-0) will look to finish out their trip in style and extend their NCAA record road winning streak to 40 Tuesday night.
For Williams, though, it's good to be home.