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USF's Courtney Williams is living the NCAA dream

Courtney Williams has averaged 21.7 points in three games against No. 1 UConn this season.
Courtney Williams has averaged 21.7 points in three games against No. 1 UConn this season.
Published Mar. 20, 2015

TAMPA — The rite of passage occurred a couple years back, before a couple dozen spectators on an outdoor slab in Folkston, Ga. In the biggest one-on-one game of her life, Courtney Williams kicked it up a notch.

And Donald Williams, a pretty fair athlete back in the day at Miami Jackson, was giving no quarter to the youngest of his two girls. He employed his length, leverage, even some liberty with the rules. To no avail.

"She smashed me good, too," Donald recalled. "And I was cheating."

At last, Courtney Monae Williams held hoops supremacy within her own bloodline, or so she presumed. As a freshman at Charlton County High, she had scored 42 in a game, two more than the school record owned by her mom, then known as Michele Granger. Older sister Doniece had been a fair athlete, but not at Courtney's level. Now, she had humbled her father.

Who else could possibly bring her down?

Williams had to look no farther than the mirror. In the next year or two, pride would prove an even more daunting nemesis than her dad.

"The only person that's going to stop Courtney is Courtney," USF coach Jose Fernandez said.

Today, the ego has been subdued. So, too, has darned near every player assigned to guard Williams, owner of arguably the best midrange jumper in the women's college game. Together, the once-unheralded recruit and once-unheralded program are crashing the big dance together.

A fringe All-America candidate, Williams (20.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.2 assists) is bearing down on Bulls immortality. The next point she scores will be the 1,500th of her career. With 15 points in Saturday's NCAA Tournament first-rounder against LSU, she'll eclipse the program's 9-year-old season scoring record (682) held by current administrative assistant Jessica Dickson.

"Her midrange game is as good as anybody's that I've seen," said Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who has watched Williams average 21.7 points in three games against the Huskies this season.

"There's a reason why she led the (American Athletic Conference) in scoring this year. She's just really, really hard to guard, and we're a good defensive team."

Her ascension into the national consciousness occurred midway through her sophomore season. Preceding the breakthrough, however, was a near breakdown. Williams was coming off the bench, grudgingly. While scoring at will (17.6 ppg her first five games), she was simmering at length.

Thrust into a starting role when injuries mounted, she totaled 15 points in early season losses to Clemson and Florida Gulf Coast then was relegated back to a reserve role. Distraught, she was calling Michele in tears; a sixth-man role was hardly befitting the small-school dynamo who nearly had averaged a triple double at Charlton County High.

"I expected to come here, especially being that it wasn't like a UConn or Kentucky or Rutgers, and I was just like, 'I come here, I'm starting,' " Williams said. "So that was an adjustment. I wasn't ready for that."

It wasn't the first time in her career that she flirted with self-destruction.

Williams was a Class 2A region freshman of the year (23 ppg, nine rpg) at Charlton County, but you won't find any record of her sophomore season. Early in the school year, she watched a pregnant cousin get into a scuffle with another girl at breakfast. When her cousin was struck, Williams, a 4.0 student, intervened.

"I couldn't let her end up falling or losing the baby," she recalled, "so I hit the girl."

Cops were summoned, students were cuffed. Williams wasn't charged with anything but was sent to an alternative school the rest of the academic year.

"When I told my mom, she was like, 'Courtney I understand; it's your cousin,' " said Williams, who was reinstated to Charlton County as a junior. " 'But you've got to pick and choose your battles.' "

The incident hardly damaged her recruiting value — she averaged 27.5 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists as a junior — but Charlton County's small-school stigma and a vagabond AAU career did. By the time Williams settled in with Kenny Kallina's Florida Girls Basketball program, she was an upperclassman. She says Auburn and USF were her only serious offers.

"That (incident) was no red flag for me," Fernandez said. "(Former USF assistant) Carrie Banks did a great job recruiting Courtney. … It was early on, some kids make mistakes. But that's what we talk about here: One mistake can change your entire life."

Less than two years into her college career, Williams was about to make another one, by sulking over the sixth-man role.

A chat with a 23-year-old video coordinator, of all people, resulted in an epiphany.

Tim Sylver, a 2013 USF graduate and aspiring coach, had served as Fernandez's manager for three seasons before being promoted. Even as a guard at Charlotte High, he was considered the Tarpons' coach on the floor. He could see the dejection in Williams and decided the time was ripe for his first career lecture.

"I told her, 'Is it me or is it us?' " Sylver recalled. "I go, 'If I told you we were gonna win a national title with you coming off the bench, would you be okay with that?' She was like, 'Yeah, of course.' "

Reinforcing his point, Sylver mentioned Jamal Crawford, the NBA's two-time sixth man of the year. That further appealed to Williams, herself an NBA junkie.

"I was like, 'You know what? I'll do that,' " she said. "So I think that probably was actually the light bulb that clicked on like, 'I can still make an impact on this team without starting.' "

Exhortations from Fernandez — develop your left hand, embrace the defensive end, see your potential and realize it — arrived concurrently. In two of the next three games, Williams led USF in scoring off the bench. By the fourth, she was starting.

She has been a first-team fixture since. In USF's last victory of the 2013-14 season, Williams hit a winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer at Mississippi State to send the Bulls to the WNIT semifinals. One sparkling regular season later, an even larger stage awaits.

Some suggest no one can stop her. Not even herself.

"It definitely feels like a dream," Williams said. "Just to actually know that I've worked so hard for this. I worked to be in the position that I'm in right now."

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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