Gabby Williams, UConn down Nevada before record crowd at Lawlor
LVN Editor Emeritus
RENO — Gabby Williams’ homecoming to Northern Nevada was better than she expected.
Williams, who played for Reed High School in Sparks, and the No. 1 University of Connecticut rolled into Reno on Tuesday night for an 88-57 win against the University of Nevada before 7,815 people at Lawlor Events Center, a record crowd for a women’s game at Nevada.
UConn improved to 6-0 after finishing a short swing through the West that included a win over UCLA. Nevada fell to 3-3.
For Williams, coming back to Lawlor, where her older sister played women’s basketball for four years, was more than satisfying. Williams said she received many messages from her friends who welcomed her back. The UConn senior, who has been named to a handful of watch lists, said it was a thrill her teammates were able to experience Reno.
“A lot more people showed here tonight that I ever expected,” she said. “All of my friend were in the stands, and my close friends saw me.”
Although the UConn players showed some fatigue from their recent swing to California and Oregon, they focused on Nevada’s turnovers and inability to make the open shots to open the game.
The Huskies’ Kia Nurse camped outside the perimeter and launched a trio of 3-pointers within a span of 3 minutes to give UConn a 17-5 lead. Williams, who finished the night with 18 points, six rebounds, three assists and five steals, connected on her first bucket 3:36 into the game when she made a layup and then another layup a minute later.
Williams scored 8 points in UConn’s 31-12 first quarter.
The Huskies mostly kept the Wolf Pack to one shot per possession and controlled the boards against the shorter Silver and Blue. UConn shared the shooting with Nurse and Crystal Dangerfield hitting their treys and Azura Stevens working inside the paint for four layups.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma, now in his 33rd year with the program, commended Nevada for its hard-charging play.
“Their level of aggressiveness is to be admired,” he said. “They’re really a competitive bunch.”
Most of the questions, though, focused on Williams’ return to Reno.
“She was a little excited, and a little bit nervous,” Auriemma said. “She wanted to make it perfect, and I was worried she would try too hard to make it perfect.”
Auriemma didn’t have to worry once the game began, however, as Williams settled down and made most of her shots.
“Gabby’s a good player, and she has worked very hard,” Auriemma said.
When she arrived in Storrs, home of the University of Connecticut, Auriemma said she was behind the other players — that included four all-Americans — with her development.
“She struggled a lot in her freshman year, but she never stopped working at it,” he added.
Auriemma used the analogy of retired New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, one of the fiercest defensive players in the National Football League.
“She plays like Lawrence Taylor played linebacker. She will go out and compete like when I have to put Gabby at the point of a press,” Auriemma said, adding there have been times he could’ve played her at four places. “She has tremendous instinct for the ball.”
With second-half adjustments, Nevada played evenly with the Huskies with each team scoring 13 points in the third quarter, and UConn outscoring the Pack 17-13 in the final period.
First-year Nevada coach Amanda Levens said she was proud of her team and their aggressive play.
Down by more than 30 points in the third quarter, the Pack cut the lead to 61-41 with 3:20 left. Nevada received clutch free-throw shooting from forward Teige Zeller, who led the team with 17 points, and a pair of arching 3-point bombs from Camariah King.
Williams’ layup, though, snapped Nevada’s surge, and the Huskies outscored the Pack 7-3 with Nurse’s 3-pointer giving UConn a 71-44 lead going into the final quarter.
The Huskies’ largest lead was 74-44 after Williams connected on 1 of 2 free throws, but Nevada rattled off 9 points, including two Zeller layups, and a 3-pointer from King, who was 5 of 6 from beyond the arc and finished with 15 points.
Nurse led all scorers with 27 points, while Stevens tallied 17. The Huskies outshot the Pack, 62.2 percent to 36.7, from the floor.
Levens said the record crowd saw how the Wolf Pack is building its program. Although Nevada had only one day to prepare for UConn after defeating SMU on Sunday, she said the team came back in the second half.
“The big difference was them hitting all the 3s,” she said. “But we did a great job of taking away what people wanted to do.”
As evidenced by the second half, Levens said when the Pack executes, the team can play with anyone.
“We want to play tough competition and build our resume,” Levens said. “Our goal is to become a top 25 team.”
Levens, who tried to recruit Williams to Arizona State University when she was an assistant coach in Tempe, said the former Reed star has great instinct and the ability to rebound above the rim.
“I think she will be a great pro,” Levens added.
Williams’ father, Matt, a former University of Nevada basketball player, said his daughter played well although he thought the team “had to help her” in the first quarter.
“She played with passion, she played with energy, she was fun to watch,” Williams said. “It’s been a long haul for the team, five games in seven days, but I’m a proud papa.”
Although Matt Williams roots for Nevada, he was all UConn on Tuesday; however, he complimented Levens for making the necessary adjustments in the second half and slowing down UConn’s offense.
Nevada heads to the Maui Classic this weekend and will face No. 18 Oregon State and Montana State.
UConn plays Notre Dame on Sunday.