Every mistake, every time the ball bounced off the rim, Christyn Williams reverted deeper into her own head, plagued with self-doubt.
After an impressive freshman season with the UConn Huskies, she knew what her teammates and coaches expected from her.
“Well, dang, I’m not living up to it,” the then-sophomore thought to herself early last season.
Despite encouraging words from teammates, Williams couldn’t pull out of her funk. She worked hard at practice, hoping to rediscover her rhythm and become the player she knew she could be.
But then UConn coach Geno Auriemma pulled her aside. “You’re uncoachable,” he told Williams.
The word stung. Uncoachable? Her?
She had known players who she thought fit that description, ones who frequently argued with the coach and were outwardly difficult. That wasn’t her. But, Auriemma explained, Williams wasn’t listening to the coaching staff. They would give her adjustments, but after one or two plays, she’d revert to doing it the way she was running it before.
Initially, she refused to believe it, sure she was incorporating the corrections. But slowly, Williams started to see that Auriemma was right. She worked even harder. And toward the end of the season, she started to feel like herself on the court again. Williams helped lead the Huskies to the American Athletic Conference title and was excited about the upcoming NCAA tournament.
But it was short-lived. Instead, she was abruptly sent home to Little Rock, Arkansas, after the tournament was canceled and the coronavirus pandemic shut down most live sports.
Her confetti dreams were just that, and the only basketball she’d be playing for the foreseeable future was at her childhood hoop. But it changed everything.
“I just had to go back to square one, and because of that, I got to fall in love with the game again,” Williams said. “All I had was the hoop in the front yard, and I would have my sister come rebound for me. I had access to my high school track so I was using that, and our strength and conditioning coach was sending us at-home workouts. But it was really back to the basics, and it helped me so much.”
The break gave her the perspective she needed. When she was finally able to return to Storrs, Connecticut, in July for her junior season, Williams was ready to get to work. No. 3 UConn is undefeated but has played just eight games in the eight weeks since the season tipped. The Huskies’ biggest games, against Louisville in the season’s opening weekend and against Baylor earlier this month, were canceled because of the coronavirus. But Williams and UConn will play their biggest nonconference game yet this season on Thursday (ESPN/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET), when the Huskies make their first trip to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 15 years to play the 25th-ranked Lady Vols.
And Williams is eager to continue showing her renewed focus and refreshed mindset on the national stage. Williams says she now knows she can be a valuable contributor in all aspects, not just as a shooter. If she misses a shot, she tries to forget about it as quickly as possible. If she’s having an off night offensively, she knows she can make up for it on the other end of the floor, and that her teammates, most notably freshman Paige Bueckers and fellow junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, can pick up the scoring slack.
“I put so much pressure on myself to be better than I was my freshman year and it backfired.”
UConn guard Christyn Williams
That shift has been apparent to all around her, including Auriemma.
“She’s been much, much more consistent from the beginning of this season,” he said. “When you get to be a junior at Connecticut, you’re expected to be a really, really, really good basketball player, which means you can do a lot of things really well.
“And I think Christyn is on the way to doing that. I think she’s putting in a little more time and effort into doing things other than the things she’s comfortable with. That’s made her a better player and it’s going to continue to make her a better player. She should be having the kind of All-American season that she seems to be having right now, that’s what we expect from her.”
Williams had a prolific high school career, winning every major award and leading Central Arkansas Christian to a state title her senior season. She arrived at UConn in the fall of 2018 as the No. 1 recruit in the nation and with all the expectations that come with it. She immediately cracked the starting lineup — becoming the first player to start in her first game since Breanna Stewart — and needed little time to prove she was ready for the college level.
Playing then-top-ranked Notre Dame in just the fifth game of her collegiate career, Williams scored a career-high 28 points to lead the Huskies to an 89-71 victory. It was a staggering breakout performance and she looked poised to become the storied program’s next superstar. But she says she wasn’t thinking about that.
“I didn’t really feel any pressure because in the back of my mind I knew I was just a freshman,” she said. “So if I messed up, ‘Whoops, I’m just a freshman.’ I didn’t have any responsibility and I was just out there playing the game I loved.”
Williams was named the AAC freshman of the year, as well as to the league’s all-tournament team. She should have entered her sophomore season with more confidence than ever, but suddenly she fully understood what was expected of her and knew she would have to step up as a leader on and off the floor. She struggled with the weight of her new role.
“Because I had such a great freshman year, I think that’s why I got so into my head last year,” Williams said. “I put so much pressure on myself to be better than I was my freshman year and it backfired. Like, say my shot wasn’t falling last season, I would then have zero impact for our team. I would say to myself, ‘Why am I even out here?’ and I would go ghost.”
Last March, Williams was named to the AAC first team and all-tournament first team and averaged 15.6 points and 4.9 rebounds, but she still calls it the worst season of her basketball career.
Entering Thursday’s game against Tennessee, Williams is averaging 14.9 points, 5.3 rebounds and is second on the team in minutes played. She still has the occasional off game — going scoreless for just the second time in her career and was relegated to the bench for the final 16 minutes of an 87-50 win over Providence on Jan. 9. But during Tuesday’s 103-35 rout of Butler, Williams had 17 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals in 29 minutes. After the game, Auriemma said she had “probably her three best practices of her career” leading in. “It shows,” he added.
With so many restrictions and changes because of COVID-19, and being one of just three upperclassmen on an otherwise young team, Williams is taking her role as leader more seriously than ever. She credits the seniors during her freshman season in 2018-19 — Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson — for helping her acclimate, and she’s trying to do the same for this season’s seven freshmen. The team is essentially isolated from everyone else — classes are entirely virtual and the players live together in groups of four — so Williams does her best to keep the vibe upbeat. She organizes trips to the grocery store and team dinners made with air fryers, because, well, that’s pretty much all they can do, but she believes the camaraderie remains high.
“We are with each other all the time so we’re really close as a team,” she said. “The pandemic helped in a weird way because it’s helped with our chemistry. We can’t go anywhere, so we’re just having fun with each other in our own little bubble, and I think you can see that when we play too.”
It hasn’t all been fun. UConn entered a 14-day pause right before the season opened due to a positive test within the program. The first three games were canceled and the constant uncertainty is an ongoing challenge. Fans aren’t allowed at Gampel Pavilion, and Williams has felt their absence. She says she has tried her best to create the atmosphere for herself and her teammates but admits it’s hard to sustain that level for 40 minutes every night without the energy of the crowd.
But Williams and the Huskies remain focused on the perennial goal of winning a national title. UConn’s last championship came in 2016 — a drought in the eyes of the UConn fandom — and bringing a trophy back to UConn and joining the ranks of the legendary players who came before her is something Williams has wanted since before she donned the uniform.
“There are so many great players that have come through here, and their accolades are hanging up in our practice facility on the wall,” she said. “I sometimes catch myself reading the names and hoping for me to be up there one day. That’s why I came here. I remember looking at the banners and the records and accolades before I even committed and thinking, ‘Wow, I want to be up there one day.'”