After the University of Connecticut women's basketball team's win over South Florida on Jan. 10, coach Geno Auriemma compared what junior forward Gabby Williams does on the defensive side of the ball to what linebacker Lawrence Taylor did for the New York Football Giants during his NFL Hall of Fame career.
"Whatever play you're trying to run, it ain't going to happen," Auriemma said. "We switch a lot with her, so one minute she's guarding you and the other guys are like, 'I'm glad she's not guarding me.' Then two sequences later, she is guarding you.
"She is just so disruptive and creates so much so many ways, whether it is a deflection, a steal or some of the blocks that she had or a defensive rebound. She just makes plays that the average basketball player can't make. If you don't watch her play in person, you're really missing out on something special."
The coaches in the American Athletic Conference agreed.
Williams was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year on Thursday in a vote by league coaches. It is the second major award for Williams in her career. She was the 2015 AAC Co-Sixth Man of the Year as a freshman.
The Sparks, Nevada, native was also chosen to the all-AAC first team along with UConn sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. Collier and Samuelson were unanimous selections.
UConn junior guard Kia Nurse was named to the all-AAC second team while senior guard Saniya Chong was a third-team choice. Guard Crystal Dangerfield was an all-freshman team pick.
The Player of the Year, the Coach of the Year, the Freshman of the Year, and the Scholar-Athlete award will be announced Friday at 2 p.m. at a press conference at Mohegan Sun Arena, site of the fourth annual AAC tournament.
UConn (29-0) is the tourney's top seed and will face either No. 8 Memphis or ninth-seeded Tulsa in a quarterfinal-round game Saturday at 2 p.m.
Williams keeps the AAC Defensive Player of the Year award in the UConn family as previous winners were Moriah Jefferson (2016), Kiah Stokes (2015), and Stefanie Dolson (2014) and it's the fifth year in a row a UConn player has won her league honor as Kelly Faris was the last Defensive Player of the Year from the old Big East in 2013. Other Huskies to win the Big East award were Nykesha Sales (1997-98) and Ashley Battle (2003).
Often assigned to the opponent's top scorer, Williams is fourth in the AAC in rebounds (8.8), third in steals (2.7), and fifth in blocked shots (1.3). On the offensive side, she is averaging a career best of 13.0 points on 55.2 percent from the floor. Her 5.2 assists rank fourth in the league and her assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.1 is fifth. Williams recorded the fifth triple-double in UConn history at East Carolina on Jan. 24 (16 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists) and reached the 1,000-point plateau against Temple on Feb. 21.
It's also the fourth straight season that the Huskies have placed at least three players on the all-AAC first team.
Collier is second in the league in scoring (20.4), third in rebounds (9.0), tied for ninth in steals (1.8), and first in blocked shots (1.9) and field-goal percentage (68.6, which also ranks second in the nation to Brionna Jones of Maryland's 69.0). The St. Peters, Missouri, native has nine double-doubles on the season including seven in her last 10 games.
Against USF at the Sun Dome on Monday, she had a career high of 39 points on 15-for-19 shooting from the floor to go with 12 rebounds and four blocked shots as the Huskies completed an unbeaten regular season. Only two players in UConn history have reached 40 -- Sales and another former Jefferson City, Missouri, resident like Collier, Maya Moore (twice). On Tuesday, Collier was named the AAC Player of the Week for a league-leading fourth time this season. She was an all-freshman pick a year ago.
Samuelson leads the AAC in scoring (20.7) and is the only player that ranks in the league's top eight in field-goal percentage (eighth at 48.6), 3-point percentage (second at 41.3), and free-throw percentage (sixth at 82.7). She tops the AAC in 3-pointers made (93) and her 2.9 assists per game average is 15th. On Monday at USF, she became the sixth Huskies' sophomore to reach 1,000 career points, joining Svetlana Abrosimova (1999), Moore (2009), Bria Hartley (2012), Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (2014), and Breanna Stewart (2015). The previous five were named WBCA All-Americans as sophomores. Samuelson made it to the milestone in her 66th game.
The Huntington Beach, California, native became the first UConn player since Tiffany Hayes in 2012 to have back-to-back 30-point games when she had a career high 34 points at Tulsa on Jan. 17 followed by a 32-point effort against Tulane at Gampel Pavilion five days later. A year ago, Samuelson was named to the all-freshman team and to the AAC all-tournament team.
Rounding out the AAC's team first team are Temple's Feyonda Fitzgerald, Central Florida's Aliyah Gregory, and South Florida's Maria Jespersen and Kitija Laksa.
Nurse, a third-team pick as a sophomore and the 2015 AAC Freshman of the Year, is averaging career bests of 12.8 points and 4.2 assists. She ranks in the top 10 in the league in field-goal percentage (10th at 46.2), 3-point percentage (first at 42.2), and free-throw percentage (second at 85.7). Her assist average is fifth in the league and her assist-to-turnover ratio fourth. The Hamilton, Ontario, Canada native had a career high of 33 points against DePaul on Dec. 1 and reached the 1,000 plateau at East Carolina on Jan. 24. She missed the last four games of the regular season due to a stress reaction in her right ankle, aggravated in the Feb. 13 win over South Carolina.
Rounding out the AAC's team second team are Temple's Alliya Butts and Donnaizha Fountain, SMU's Alicia Froling (SMU), and Tulane's Kolby Morgan.
Chong is averaging career bests of 8.1 points and 3.9 assists and her assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.66 is first in the AAC and second in the nation to Western Kentucky's Micah Jones (3.69). The Ossining, New York, native nailed a crucial 3-pointer that iced the Huskies' win at Maryland on Dec. 29 and matched her career high of 20 points and had eight assists in the Jan. 10 win over USF, which was also UConn's 90th straight. The sociology major, who was a 2014 AAC all-freshman selection, will receive her bachelor's degree in May.
Rounding out the AAC's team third team are Memphis' Cheyenne Creighton and Brea Elmore, Cincinnati's Shanice Johnson, Central Florida's Zykira Lewis, and Tulane's Leslie Vorpahl.
Dangerfield is averaging 6.1 points in 23 games, having missed time with a concussion and an ankle injury. She is ninth in the AAC in assists (3.6) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1). She had 19 points in the win over Baylor on Nov. 17 and closed out the regular season Monday with 12 points and nine assists against USF.
Other AAC award winners are USF's Jespersen (Most Improved), Temple's Tanaya Atkinson (Sixth Man), Cincinnati's Johnson (Newcomer), and Tulane's Vorpahl (Sportsmanship).
Also on Thursday, the Atlanta Tipoff Club had Collier, Williams, and Samuelson on its list of 10 semfinalists for the Naismith Trophy as national Player of the Year. The other semifinalists are Jones (Maryland), Kelsey Mitchell (Ohio State), Kelsey Plum (Washington), Brianna Turner (Notre Dame), Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State), Sydney Wiese (Oregon State), and A'ja Wilson (South Carolina). Four finalists will be announced on March 17. Stewart won the award three times (2014-16).
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE AWARDS
Defensive Player of the Year: Gabby Williams (UConn)
Sixth-Man Award: Tanaya Atkinson (Temple)
Most Improved Player: Maria Jespersen (South Florida)
Newcomer of the Year: Shanice Johnson (Cincinnati)
Sportsmanship Award: Leslie Vorpahl (Tulane)
First team: Napheesa Collier (UConn), Feyonda Fitzgerald (Temple), Aliyah Gregory (Central Florida), Maria Jespersen (South Florida), Kitija Laksa (South Florida), Katie Lou Samuelson (UConn), Gabby Williams (UConn).
Second team: Alliya Butts (Temple), Donnaizha Fountain (Temple), Alicia Froling (SMU), Kolby Morgan (Tulane), Kia Nurse (UConn).
Third team: Saniya Chong (UConn), Cheyenne Creighton (Memphis), Brea Elmore (Memphis), Shanice Johnson (Cincinnati), Zykira Lewis (Central Florida), Leslie Vorpahl (Tulane).
Freshman team: Crystal Dangerfield (UConn), Shug Dickson (Tulsa), Kendrian Elliott (Tulsa), Angela Harris (Houston), Jasmyne Harris (Houston), Tamara Henshaw (South Florida).