You’ve heard the story before, countless times. It’s about the high school standout who comes to college and becomes perplexed and frustrated that what once came pretty easily had become challenging.
Common as the scenario is, it’s still a major hurdle to clear for every player who encounters it. But if she does, it’s a process she never forgets.
South Florida senior guard Courtney Williams can attest to this. She has become one of the top players in college, and is looking forward to a professional career. But she had to go through that “what I am doing wrong?” phase at one point, too.
“I learned that nothing is going to get handed to me,” Williams said. “I came in here and just expected to be thrown into the starting lineup and do what I’d done in high school. And it didn’t work that way. I had to work to get to where I am.”
Once Williams realized how much she had to put into the process of improving, she attacked that the same way we’ve now grown used to seeing her attack defenses.
“I know that in our league the last couple of years, she’s been the most difficult player for us to guard, and has been the toughest matchup for our guards. She’s really impressive.”
Geno Auriemma on Courtney Williams
Williams is averaging 22 points and 8.9 rebounds for the Bulls, who beat Temple 76-62 Saturday in Tampa, Florida, and clinched second place at 14-3 behind unbeaten UConn in the American Athletic Conference. South Florida finishes the regular season at Storrs, Connecticut, against the top-ranked Huskies on Big Monday (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).
Williams had 26 points and 13 rebounds when the Huskies won 75-59 at South Florida on Jan. 10. UConn coach Geno Auriemma said the 5-foot-8 Williams reminds him of Jewell Loyd, the former Notre Dame standout now with the WNBA’s Seattle Storm.
“Courtney is hard to guard; she gets her shot off wherever she wants,” Auriemma said. “I know that in our league the last couple of years, she’s been the most difficult player for us to guard, and has been the toughest matchup for our guards. She’s really impressive.”
Her parents, Donald and Michele Williams, both were basketball players. When she was younger, Courtney loved dunking on a lowered rim more than anything.
“That’s all I wanted to do,” she said, laughing.
As she got older, she became more adept at all phases of the game, including the pull-up jump shot. She was first-team all-state as a senior at Charlton County High School in Folkston, Georgia, which is near the Florida border, about 42 miles northwest of Jacksonville.
Her freshman season at South Florida, she started three games and averaged 7.4 points. She admits now that she thought it would all be easier.
“After her first season, we just stressed some things,” Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said. “It was, ‘We’ve got to work on your ballhandling, playing without the basketball and expanding your range.
“And every offseason, Courtney has lived in the gym, has wanted to improve. And I knew that the first time I met her through the recruiting process that she would do that. I knew how much she loved the game and her aspirations of playing at the next level.”
It has been a steady progression since for Williams. She worked her way into the starting lineup as a sophomore, when she averaged 16.3 points. Last season, she started every game, raised her average to 20.3 points per game, and broke the school’s single-season scoring record with 710 points.
“Every year, I’ve found something different to focus on,” Williams said. “The first thing was improving my range. Then I needed to work on going left better. And for this year, the biggest thing was getting my teammates involved more, and be more of a facilitator.”
To that end, it helped Williams to play for the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the World University Games in Korea last summer. Williams averaged 11.3 points and 7.7 rebounds for the U.S. team, and became good friends with two teammates in particular: Michigan State’s Aerial Powers and DePaul’s Chanise Jenkins.
“I didn’t know them at all before,” Williams said. “But we clicked automatically. We still check in with each other.”
All three are now seniors who lead their teams in scoring and will be headed to the NCAA tournament. For Williams, it will be her third trip to the Big Dance; the Bulls lost to Louisville in the second round last year, and to Cal in the second round during Williams’ freshman season in 2013. South Florida advanced to the semifinals of the 2014 WNIT.
The expectations for the Bulls were very high this season, but they’re still battling various injuries. Their top 3-point shooter, freshman Kitija Laksa, is currently out with an ankle injury, but Fernandez hopes to have her back for the American tournament.
Williams is the only player who has started all 28 games. The Bulls, who had a strong nonconference slate including Baylor, St. John’s, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State, are 21-7 overall and currently projected as a No. 8 seed by espnW bracketologist Charlie Creme.
“We didn’t expect to go through the amount of stuff we’ve gone through,” Fernandez said. “But hopefully we can get everybody back for the conference tournament and then going into the NCAA tournament.”
Win or lose in Monday’s regular-season finale, the Bulls will be considered one of UConn’s top challengers in the American tournament. Williams said that the matchups she has had with the Huskies have helped make her a better player.
“They are the best team in the country, and they definitely prepare our team as a whole,” Williams said. “For me, having someone as quick as Moriah Jefferson guard me almost the whole game — and then when she’s not, it’s a bigger player like Kia Nurse — it’s tough, but it’s great for me to play against those kind of players.”
Fernandez says watching Williams’ progress has been gratifying for him because he believed in her all along.
“Early on, Courtney didn’t know what was a good shot and what was a bad shot,” Fernandez said. “Then her sophomore and junior year, everybody talked about her being a high-volume shooter. And yeah, she had to take a lot of shots for us. And sometimes the ball died in her hands, because she was only looking to create for herself.
“Whereas now, she not only can create for herself, but also for her teammates. That’s part of growing, and being a student of the game. Courtney really stuck with it and wanted to be coached and to improve.”