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Gators coach Amanda Butler knows when freshman Ronni Williams is on the court, chances of winning increase.

Wednesday March 5, 2014When Williams Hangs Around, Gators Hang Around

Gators coach Amanda Butler knows when freshman Ronni Williams is on the court, chances of winning increase.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The UF women’s basketball team opens play in the SEC Tournament on Thursday.

The Gators know the longer freshman Ronni Williams hangs around, the longer they can hang around.

“I think Ronni’s only improvement is for her to stay in the game,’’ Gators forward Kayla Lewis said. “She does well once she’s in. She’s playing well, she’s rebounding, she’s scoring well. Adjusting to fouls has been a struggle for her all season.

“We just want Ronni to play a full game. When she does, we most likely are going to be successful.”

Lewis knows what she is talking about.

In her first season at UF, Williams played in every game. She averaged 8.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

The first McDonald’s All-American in program history played a critical role in the Gators (18-11, 8-8 in SEC) earning a No. 5 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament after being picked by league coaches to finish 10th in the preseason.

Williams’ impact would have been greater if not for this statistic: 19.1 minutes per game.

Williams played an average of less than half a game due to her penchant for picking up fouls. She set a UF record – one that had stood since Quientella Bonner fouled out 14 times during the 1978-79 season – by fouling out of 15 games.

The 6-foot Williams, accustomed to facing the basket during her record-breaking high school career at Daytona Beach Atlantic, was asked to play on the lower blocks this season due to the Gators’ lack of depth.

Florida had only nine players on the roster most of the season and needed Williams’ size inside.

“I’m going to do whatever I have to do for my team to be successful,’’ Williams said. “It was pretty tough going against girls that are bigger than me in size and in height. I can’t let that get to me. I just have to do what I do best.”

Ronni Williams

Williams is at her best when she has the ball in space and driving to the basket. While she had trouble staying on the court at times, when she did, the Gators were clearly a better team.

Florida was 11-3 when Williams did not foul out -- and 7-8 when she did. The loss of Williams to foul trouble hurt the Gators most in SEC play. The Gators were just 2-5 in the seven SEC games Williams was disqualified from.

The Gators face Wednesday’s Missouri-Mississippi State winner on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. at The Arena at Gwinnett Center in suburban Atlanta.

As the No. 5 seed, the Gators are likely to earn the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012. Still, a win or two can’t hurt before Florida’s fate is in the hands of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

A year ago when Florida made a postseason run to the WNIT Final Four, a highly touted freshman played a pivotal role.

Former UF player Sydney Moss, who transferred to Division III Thomas Moore College for family reasons after last season, blossomed in the 2013 postseason. In UF’s five-game run to the WNIT semifinals, Moss averaged 19.6 points, 9.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game.

This is a different UF team, one that relies on Williams and Lewis to play bigger than they are by defending in the low post, but if Williams can show the type of improvement Moss did a year ago, it can only help Florida’s bid to make a statement in the postseason.

“She is starting to make her mark,’’ Gators coach Amanda Butler said. “She is starting to make sure she is part of our opponents’ game plan every night.”

Williams was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team on Tuesday and in her first game for the Gators finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds – only the second UF player in history to record a double-double in her college debut. She faced a difficult transition period once SEC play started but had a 19-point, 10-rebound performance at Kentucky when the Wildcats were ranked No. 6 in the country.

Seniors Lily Svete and Jaterra Bonds saw a young player trying to find her way improve as the season progressed.

“She is very talented,’’ Svete said. “She has kind of taken on a more assertive role on the team. She will tell me stuff that I need to work on. I love hearing feedback, so it’s just great that she will take that step.”

Bonds, a first-team All-SEC selection who leads the team in scoring (15.8 points per game), said Williams makes the Gators better in multiple ways. According to Bonds, Williams’ increased confidence on defense is the biggest difference she sees from the start of the season.

“She has her struggles, but she also has games like the Kentucky game where she goes off and has a double-double,’’ Bonds said. “As a freshman, you are going to have your ups and downs. We all know she can be a great player on the offensive end. Just taking that same confidence and translating it on the defensive end, know you can defend whatever player is in front of you.”

In Sunday’s regular-season finale at the O’Connell Center, Williams played only 15 minutes in an 83-72 loss to Texas A&M.

Yup, foul trouble did her in.

As the Gators enter the postseason, Butler is hopeful she won’t have to pull Williams from the court as much. She prefers to watch Williams play to her sitting on the bench.

“I think for Ronni, it’s not so much about elevating her game as it’s elevating her level of consistency,’’ Butler said. “It’s important for us to be able to have her on the floor. Consistency is one of the trickiest things to learn. I think she has some great role models in her upperclassmen, and I know it’s what she wants. She knows how important she is.”


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