Big E’s last Big Dance
As Elizabeth Williams stood with her teammates waiting to see what seed they would receive in this year’s NCAA tournament, she towered over them. Physically, Williams may not be the tallest on the team, but during the past four years she has become synonymous with Duke basketball, and her reputation stands taller than anyone around her.
Every year, the senior center has seen a similar storyline play out at Duke. She dominates in her performances and earns All-American status, only to see her team fizzle out before the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. The question everyone has this season—as Williams becomes the first first four-time All-America in school history—is whether this is the year the Virginia Beach, Va., native can finally break through in the tournament.
“[Not getting to the Sweet 16 last year] will definitely be something we are thinking about,” Williams said. “Obviously [last year we did not] take things one game at a time and doing what we needed to do. It’s important that we think of that in the back of our minds.”
In her rookie campaign, Williams was the consensus National Freshman of the Year, winning ACC Rookie of the Week nine times after averaging 14.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.5 blocks, 1.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game. The Blue Devils were awarded a No. 2 seed, but with Williams nursing a stress fracture in her lower right knee during the tournament, Duke made it to the Elite Eight and fell to No. 1 seed Stanford.
In her sophomore season, Williams was a John R. Wooden Award finalist and also received ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. She scored 20 or more points in seven games and recorded six double-doubles. Although Duke again received the second seed in its region, the Blue Devils fell to Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
Last year was a textbook season for Williams. She started all 35 games, averaging 13.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 2.2 assists and 1.3 steals per contest, and also hit a career-best 52.6 percent of her shots. The leading post presence on the team also received All-ACC First Team honors and Duke once again received a No. 2 seed with the right to host the first two rounds. However, late season injuries proved too much for the Blue Devils as they were upset by No. 7 seed DePaul in the second round.
This season was not without its trials and tribulations as well. Injuries to key players and surprise departures left the team understaffed. The Blue Devils are very young, with three true freshmen and one redshirt freshman on the team. More than ever, this Duke team has rallied around Williams, and her experience will be even more important during the tournament.
“This year, only a couple of us have been in this tournament field,” Williams said. “But we are all having a lot of fun and getting really comfortable playing together.”
Every year, it seems that Williams finds a new level of her game that nobody could have even imagined, only to have nothing to show for it at the end of the postseason. However, Duke head coach Joanne P. McCallie thinks that this team could have what is needed to make it to the Final Four.
“This team is special,” said McCallie. “Elizabeth has had some amazing games. If she plays like she did against North Carolina, I mean when she decides that she’s going to hand it to people, I’d say that’s the best game she’s ever had.”
Without a doubt, Williams played at a completely different pace from anyone else on the floor in the first game against North Carolina. She scored a career-high 33 points and pulled down 10 rebounds and willed the Blue Devils to a win in overtime in hostile territory on the road.
Although Williams has always been a menace in the post—scoring and rebounding—the part of her game that has progressed the most has been her passing ability. This season, Williams has the second-most assists on the team, and the impact of her passing has not been lost on the coaching staff.
“If [Elizabeth] gets double-teamed, as she does, pivot, find your teammate, and make them pay for that,” McCallie said. “I definitely think that her assists are impressive and important to us.”
Maybe this new facet of Williams’s game can be the answer to Duke’s woes in the NCAA tournament. But what is very clear is that the Blue Devils need Williams to hold nothing back if they want to win.
“At this point of time, you want to let everything loose,” said McCallie. “And hopefully [Elizabeth] can do that.”