STORRS, Conn. -- Gabby Williams always thought of herself as an athletic basketball player, not an athlete who plays basketball.
But somewhere between her time at Reed High in Sparks, Nevada, and her arrival at the University of Connecticut, the thinking for some changed.
"In high school, no one ever felt that I was just an athlete and it kind of happened when I got to college," Williams said. "It's been a back-and-forth struggle. Starting my freshman year I heard, 'She's a great athlete. She's a great athlete.' Well, what I'm going to do is prove that I'm a lot more than that."
She's done it better than even the Huskies could have expected.
Williams, who was named to the preseason American Athletic Conference second team in October, was a first-team choice this month and was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. By the time March is over, she could have "All-American" in front of her name.
Top-seeded and unbeaten UConn begins its bid for a fifth-straight national championship Saturday when it hosts No. 16 America East tournament champion Albany in a NCAA Bridgeport Regional first-round game at Gampel Pavilion.
"There are things that Gabby could have gotten this year that she didn't, and there are things we just couldn't have done without her," UConn guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. "It just shows she is huge for our team."
Williams enters NCAA play averaging career highs of 13.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 2.7 steals, and 1.4 blocked shots. All those numbers rank in the top-six in the AAC except scoring, where she is 15th.
She has had 10 double-doubles and recorded a triple-double of 16 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists in a win at East Carolina on Jan. 24. She joined UConn's 1,000-point club on Feb. 22 during a win over Temple at the XL Center in Hartford.
"I feel more comfortable in doing the bigger things, not just little things," Williams said.
But when did that thing of her being an athlete playing basketball start?
It may have its origins from Williams' performance at the 2012 United States Olympic Track and Field trials when the then-high school sophomore finished fifth in the high jump with a leap of 6'2.25." Three months earlier, though, she had led Reed to the Class 4A Nevada state basketball championship.
"Basketball has always been part of my life because my siblings played and my dad played," Williams said. "I didn't start track until middle school and didn't really take it seriously until my freshman year of high school. My sophomore year I jumped six feet and they said, 'Do you know that you could be an Olympian?' That's when I stepped that up. I did it for fun in middle school just because my friends did."
Even during the recruiting process, Williams was thinking of doing both basketball and track with an eye on making the 2016 Olympic team as a high jumper.
"UConn and a lot of schools got involved with me for basketball first and at the time I wanted to do both," Williams said. "On my visit here I talked to the basketball and track coaches and they were both open to it.
"I liked Arizona for track. I liked Kentucky and they were probably my next choice with Louisville third. All three coaches were open to me doing both. But then I got hurt. Before the ACL injuries I was more into doing both but after I hurt the knee I stopped doing track."
Williams tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee on Jan. 19 of her junior year. It was two months later that she made an unofficial visit to UConn for the Huskies' opening NCAA weekend. She made her verbal commitment to coach Geno Auriemma a few days after getting home.
That the Huskies' coaching staff, which included Shea Ralph, stuck by her after the surgery played a key role in her decision.
"Shea was actually at the game before I tore the ACL. I hurt it the next morning," Williams said. " She called me and she said, 'Girl, I did it like five times.' It was helpful. And Brianna Banks had torn her ACL a month or so before I did so she was involved, too. They would text me and wish me good luck, movies I could watch … They were all very supportive."
A second ACL tear cost Williams most of her senior season at Reed even though she was named a McDonald's All-American.
She wasn't ready for the rigors of UConn mentally or physically. In the Huskies' only loss since her arrival at Stanford on Nov. 17, 2014, Auriemma decided not to play her.
But by the end of the season she was the AAC's Sixth Man of the Year and was chosen to the all-freshman team. She was even better as a sophomore, and in a starting role in the NCAA final against Syracuse had nine points, eight rebounds, and three assists in a convincing win.
It was a sign of things to come out in her breakout junior year.
"Gabby, quite frankly, has surprised me with how far she has come in such a short period of time, given that she didn't play hardly at all her junior and senior year in high school and most of her freshman year at Connecticut," Auriemma said. "That she is doing this with just basically two full years of basketball, last year and this year, that's remarkable."
She is on pace to finish in UConn's single-season top 10 in assists and steals and the top 20 in rebounds. She currently ranks fifth all-time in field-goal percentage at 61.0.
With her, defense leads to offense.
"I've always loved playing defense," Williams said. "I always loved dishing the ball off as I was a point guard in high school. I loved being athletic enough to do all that.
"I do try to expand my game and sometimes it doesn't go the way that I want to. I'll be like, "Oh, maybe I should just play like an athlete.' That's where the mental part of the game comes in and you convince yourself otherwise. They tie into each other because if things aren't going well physically then you can lose your mental edge. That's been the hardest part for me. When I'm not knocking in shots, how do I convince myself to keep taking good shots when they're available to me. When I'm turning over the ball, how do I convince myself to not become timid.
"I struggled a lot with my individual confidence, I think, and it kind of caused problems with me as a leader. I think I have grown a lot."
She has been at her best in some of the biggest games. At Notre Dame on Dec. 7, she had 19 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and five steals. At Maryland on Dec. 29 she had 16 points, nine rebounds, and five assists. And when the Huskies pushed their winning streak to 100 by beating South Carolina at Gampel Pavilion, it was Williams leading the way with 26 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, and four steals.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas may have put her game and her season in perspective with a six-word tweet -- "most complete player in college hoops" -- in January.
She's not done yet.
"There is always more that I can do, and I think down the road I am going to have do more," Williams said. "I've never really set a bar for myself. I'm just trying to improve every day and take it step by step and get better practice by practice, game by game."