Christyn Williams puts it all together in UConn's Sweet 16 win over Iowa
Christyn Williams remembers a single conversation with Geno Auriemma that forever altered the course of her collegiate career. During a challenging sophomore season in which she never seemed to get comfortable, Auriemma said two words that are burned into Williams’ memory.
“You’re uncoachable,” he said.
That moment stuck with Williams and set the foundation for a turnaround that eventually led to her 27-point explosion paired with a stellar defensive effort against Iowa to lead UConn to its 15th consecutive Elite Eight.
“The uncoachable comment, yeah,” she started, “I would say that was definitely a turning point because what player wants to be uncoachable? I really just try my best to listen to every little thing that he was saying and to do it because Coach has coached for years and he knows what he's talking about. I just try my best to just do what he's been saying. Look where I am now.”
Though Williams came to UConn as the No. 1 recruit in her class, it’s been a rocky journey to this point. Her development has been far from linear and even this season, she’s gone scoreless multiple times. In the Huskies’ first two NCAA Tournament games, she only took nine shots both times out and scored a combined 24 points.
Williams’ rise didn’t truly begin until she started putting as much time and effort into the defensive end as she did on offense. That realization finally clicked for her on Feb. 17 when she held St. John’s Leilani Correa to just two points – just two weeks after Correa dropped 33 on the Huskies.
“There's been a huge change since maybe the game at St. John's, if I can pinpoint a time when, defensively, Christyn started to understand how ‘I can impact this team in so many other ways,’” Auriemma said.
Since then, Williams has routinely been tasked with marking each opponents’ top player and answered the bell each time.
“I’ve embraced my role on this team as a defensive stopper,” she said. “That hasn't always been the case my years here at UConn. Coach has always been on me about being a more complete player on both ends of the floor. I've just been working hard on it.”
Against Iowa, Williams was UConn’s main defender tasked with guarding Hawkeyes’ superstar Caitlin Clark. Though it wasn’t all on her shoulders, Williams saw the bulk of the action and didn’t give up anything easy. Clark was forced to settle for bad looks and though she finished with 21 points, she went just 7-21 from the field and turned the ball over five times.
“There were a couple times where we guarded her great and she still knocked in a couple threes,” Auriemma said. “So the whole thing was about how our team is going to guard Iowa, in particular Caitlin Clark, not, ‘Hey, Christyn, she's on you, that's it.’ Obviously, Christyn had the main responsibility. I thought she did a phenomenal job.”
Despite exerting a significant amount of energy on defense, Williams still came through on the offensive end with 27 points on a career-high 23 shots. She scored in a variety of ways with three 3-pointers, a mid-range jumper, eight layups, and six points in transition.
“Christyn was amazing,” Auriemma said. “She just had this look in her eye the first half when it looked like she could score from anywhere, any time she wanted.”
Over a year after being labeled “uncoachable” in the midst of a frustrating, confidence-killing sophomore season, Williams proved she was a different player. Against Iowa, it felt like she finally realized her full potential as a player for the first time.
“I've had my ups and downs during my time here at UConn. Everybody knows it,” she said. “It just feels really good to be able to play this basketball game as well as I did tonight, just to know the Christyn Williams I am because I am a complete player and I feel like people have forgotten that.”
Auriemma, who has pushed every one of Williams’ buttons and tried every type of motivation and coaching technique in the book to get the best out of her, beamed with pride postgame.
“Today she looked like the Christyn Williams that we saw when we were recruiting her: A kid that can make shots from everywhere, can make shots at the basket, can make shots from the three-point line, can attack you in transition,” he said.
“I thought this is the best game that Christyn Williams has probably played in her career. No question about that.”
Bueckers’ playful pat
When Anna Makurat drained her second 3-pointer of the game with 20 seconds left, Paige Bueckers ran over to Auriemma and gave him a quick tap on the backside as she went up the court – much to the head coach’s surprise.
“It's kind of an inside joke between Coach and team,” Bueckers explained afterwards. “We were just really excited that Anna came in and hit a huge three and I just gave him a pat on the butt just to let him know that was a great play.”
So what was the inside joke?
“The inside joke was that's more shots than Anna’s made in a month and I kept telling her ‘At some point you gotta make one, you've got to make a couple. You've got to help us a little bit,” Auriemma elaborated.
Both assistant coach Jamelle Elliot and video coordinator/interim coach Ben Kantor pushed Auriemma to play Makurat more, believing she was nearing a breakthrough. The head coach relented and Makurat came through with a pair of triples in the fourth quarter.
“You know what? She did (make the shots),” Auriemma said about Makurat. “I think Paige was letting me know. She never passes up an opportunity to let me know when I'm wrong.”
Geno and Clark share a moment
Although there are no handshake lines this season due to COVID-19 protocols, Auriemma made sure to find Clark after the buzzer sounded. He walked over to midcourt, called Clark over and spoke to her for nearly 30 seconds.
After the game, Clark revealed what Auriemma said to her.
“Yeah, he was pretty much just like, ‘You're crazy good’, whatnot. Things like that. He's like, ‘It's kind of a shame it had to be so much pressure on you and Paige. I could tell you guys were so antsy in the first half,’ which I think is kind of true,” she said.
“To have him come up to me and say the things he did, he said, ‘What you've done for Iowa this season really has been something special, you have a bright future.’ To hear him say that to me really meant something. To take the time to wave me down and talk to me obviously meant a lot and I'm very thankful for that.”