Gabby Williams had waited three years for a night like April 7. As a sophomore at Reed High in Sparks, Nevada, Williams was jumping for joy as she led her team to a state championship.
But Williams’ junior and senior seasons at Reed ended with her being carried to the bench with right knee injuries. Her freshman year with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, however, ended with her helping to carry coach Geno Auriemma off the floor at Tampa’s Amalie Arena.
The Huskies won their third straight national championship and 10th overall on April 7 by beating Notre Dame 63-53.
“I stayed healthy and that was a big thing,” Williams said of her rookie campaign. “Just having an opportunity to play in this game was something I worked for all season. It all came down to this moment. All the awards, all the accolades, they would have meant nothing if we didn’t win this final game.”
Williams was put into a difficult situation against the Irish. After playing sparingly against Dayton and Maryland in the previous two wins, she came in with 10:24 left and UConn holding a six-point lead. Her defense against Notre Dame point guard Lindsay Allen was good enough that it allowed Auriemma to keep top defender Moriah Jefferson on Irish standout Jewell Loyd. But Williams had a chance to push the Huskies’ lead to nine with a layup and the American Athletic Conference leader in field-goal percentage missed.
She was replaced by Kia Nurse at the next time out.
“I can’t say it was like any other game, but I was trying to focus in on what was happening on the floor,” Williams said.
It’s not like Williams hasn’t performed well in front of big crowds or in high-caliber competition before.
As a high school sophomore, she finished fifth in the high jump at the 2012 United States Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon. In front of 20,791 fans at Hayward Field, she cleared 6’2.25” — the sixth-best ever for a high school athlete.
“It was hard. It was just a different feel,” Williams said of her final experience in front of 19,810 in Tampa.
It didn’t take her long to turn her attention to the offseason. The summer between a player’s freshman and sophomore seasons is often crucial and for the first time since 2012, Williams is healthy heading into it.
Williams played in 17 games as a junior at Reed High before suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. She played in just 13 games as a senior before re-tearing the ACL and having a second season-ending surgery.
"I'm really looking forward to this offseason and I'm excited that I'll be able to work on my game and improve," Williams said. "I haven't had the chance to do that the last couple of offseasons. Last year I didn't even play full court until First Night. So, I'll be ready to get back out there and try to expand my game."
The 5-foot-11 Williams was a point guard in high school but played forward for the Huskies (38-1). Her athleticism allowed her to excel and she averaged 8.3 points on 63.7 percent shooting from the floor and 5.7 rebounds in 15.6 minutes over 38 games. She also had a plus-1.25 assist-to-turnover ratio and her five double-doubles were second on the team to consensus Player of the Year Breanna Stewart. She was named to the all-AAC freshman team and shared the league's Sixth Man Award.
But she did shoot just 46.2 percent from the foul line and her inexperience came through at times. She's the first to admit she has much to gain from a good spring and summer.
"I absolutely have my goals, that's for sure," Williams said. "I'm hoping that I can improve my shooting. I know that's something I need to work on. Maybe they'll pull me off the block a little bit next year and I can get some guard play back in my game. It's about being able to expand my game. This year a lot of my shots were around the rim. If I can add more range, I'll be tougher to defend."
One part of her game that isn't coming back in the near future is track and field.
When Williams committed to UConn in 2013, there was talk that she would play her first year at UConn then redshirt for the 2015-16 season to concentrate on trying to make the Olympic team that's going to Rio de Janeiro as a high jumper. While she admits she misses track, her athletic focus now is on basketball.
"When I had that idea I think I was 16 and at that point everything sounded perfect," Williams said. "It was, 'Oh, I'll go to UConn and win a national championship. Then I'll go to Rio for track.' I was just young and excited then, and at that point I was still coming off the Olympic trials. I didn't want it to end, but I think it ended when it should have.
"It's hard to say if I'll do track again," she added. "I don't know how my career is going to go here and I don't know what kind of position I'll be in. I've thought about 2020 but it would be a long shot. I haven't high jumped in almost three years now."
So the only jump Williams wants to make is with the level of her game. She can't wait to get going.