Dom Amore: How one word from UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma helped Christyn Williams rise from ‘uncoachable’ to unstoppable

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Dom Amore, Hartford Courant
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Words matter, depending on the source, no matter how many there are, or how often they are repeated. Geno Auriemma freely admits he utters a lot of them.

“A lot of words come out of my mouth,” he said, “and ‘uncoachable’ probably comes out 10 times a day with every one of my players.”

But any good coach, let alone a legend with 11 national titles, knows the potential power of each word, with the effects of timing, inflection. A little over a year ago, Auriemma sent that verbal projectile on its way to Christyn Williams, and it landed on target.

“Yeah, I would say that was definitely a turning point,” Williams said Saturday, after her 27-point performance in the UConn women’s 92-72 victory over Iowa in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. “Because what player wants to be uncoachable? So I just tried my best to listen to every little thing that he was saying and do it, because Coach has coached for years and he knows what he is talking about. So I just tried my best to do what he was saying ... and look where I am now.”

Where Christyn Williams was on Saturday was near the end of a long process to shed the shoulder weight that comes with playing for the UConn women’s basketball team, and rediscover the confidence, joy and passion that got her to Storrs in the first place. Where Williams arrived was a place so many believed she was destined to be — center stage, on a big stage, for a show-stopping moment. The Huskies were on network television, ABC, for the first time since the 1995 championship game, and with the audience fixed on the Paige Bueckers-vs.-Caitlin Clark matchup, here came Williams, a No.1 recruit herself, to make it her day.

“I told ‘C’ two days ago, this was going to be her game,” Bueckers said. “That she was going to be able to take over and lead our team, and she came in with that mentality. Everybody saw her offense, but what she did on the defensive end was huge. Her play, everybody saw it, it was amazing. This is what she does every day in practice, and I was really excited to see her go out and do it. For her to come out like that and lead the team, it set the tone for all of us.”

Williams’ ups and downs the past two years come out of the context of her brilliance in high school in Little Rock, Ark., and with USA Basketball, and her promising first season in college. She was the American Athletic Conference freshman of the year, and scored 28 against Notre Dame, ranked No. 1 at the time. She ruminated on the word “uncoachable” back home last offseason, but her junior season was also plagued by inconsistency, typified by a couple of scoreless games in Big East play, and a 3-for-11 night against South Carolina.

As Williams went 0-for-6 against Seton Hall on Feb. 10, Evina Westbrook grew concerned, telling her in a huddle, “Get out of it, wake up, you’ve got to come ready to play.

A couple of games later, Williams went 8-for-11, scoring 21 against St. John’s and the process began in earnest. Defense was, as it so often is, the answer.

“The thing Christyn struggled with early on was her offense,” Auriemma said. “If the ball didn’t go in the basket, she didn’t really know how to contribute to us winning, and that put way too much pressure on her. Every shot, every possession for her was life and death. There’s been a huge change since the game at St. John’s, when, defensively, Christyn started to understand how she can impact this team in so many other ways. Today, she looked like the Christyn Williams that we saw when we were recruited her, a kid who can make shots from anywhere.”

Williams embraced the job of guarding the opposition’s best offensive player, and on Saturday, that meant taking the lead in the team’s defensive approach to containing Clark, the top scorer in the country. With Williams on her, Clark missed nine of her first 10 shots, and though she finished with 21, she had to work very hard and take 21 shots to get her points.

Often, a defensive assignment of that caliber takes so much energy, the offensive game feels the fatigue, but not for Williams, not Saturday. After missing her first three shots, she made a layup to put UConn ahead, 10-8, and off she went, hitting 12 of 23. Her best game at UConn, the coach called it.

“I’ve had my ups and downs during my time here at UConn, everybody knows it,” Williams said. “It just feels really good to be able to play this basketball game as well as I did today, just to show the Christyn Williams I am, because I am a complete player and I feel people have forgotten that. I’m just trying to showcase my game as hard as I can from here on out.”

Dating back to the Big East Tournament, Williams is shooting 56.5 percent over the last five games. Auriemma said then the Huskies, after she scored 26 and held Villanova’s top scorer, Maddy Siegrist, to three points, were a “championship team” if Williams played like that. More words that, based on what we saw Saturday, packed power, resonated.

“I mean, she just had this look in her eye,” Auriemma said. “That first half, it looked like she could score from anywhere, anytime she wanted. And she takes great pride in her defense now, and her rebounding and her ability to make a play for someone else. Just a whole litany of things I’ve been hoping Christyn would acquire and she found a perfect time to do that. ...

“We are all teachers at heart. We all love when our students get something and the light goes on and they feel there’s a sense of accomplishment. ‘Wow, this was really hard for me, it took me a while to get this, but I feel so good about myself that I finally got it.’”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com