When UConn plays at Central Florida on New Year’s Day, five of its players will be happy to again see a coach who worked with them at various levels of their USA Basketball careers.
UCF coach Joi Williams is in her seventh season with the Knights. She led them to the 2009 and 2011 NCAA Tournaments after winning Conference USA Championships. But she has also worked extensively with national teams and is now in the midst of a four-year term with the USA Junior National Team Committee, helping select coaches and athletes for USA Basketball’s college-aged competitions.
In the summer of 2010, Williams served as an assistant on the U-18 National Team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship for Women. The next summer she was an assistant with the U-19 that won the World Championships in Chile.
Both of those teams were coached by Hartford’s Jen Rizzotti. And those teams featured current UConn players Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson (2010 and 2011) and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck (2011).
“It’s been a fantastic experience,” Williams said Thursday. “I am so appreciative of the opportunities I have received from USA Basketball, both as an assistant and member of the selection committee. It’s the pinnacle of what we do and it gives you a chance to learn and observe from both ends; from the selection side, you grow to understand about the method to the madness [about picking teams]. And then you see what the coaches go through in working with them.
“It’s great to watch the young women competing with hopes of being an Olympian someday.”
Williams said she learned a lot from working with Rizzotti, some of which she recalled from their days as players (Williams played at South Florida from 1984-88).
“I learned so much from Jen about game strategy and practices that I have been able to implement,” Williams said. “We’ve become very good friends and stay in touch often. I remember how intense she was as a player; my memories of her are vivid. And she’s like that as a coach. I am sure it was ingrained in her.
“And through the years of working with her, it’s easy for me to see how she has had the success she’s had at Hartford. She demands excellence, but I also enjoyed seeing how well she relates to the players.”
As for working with the UConn kids, Williams says she was just as impressed with their personalities as their talents.
“They are fantastic people, first and foremost. Stefanie Dolson is one of the funniest people I’ve been around, a great sense of humor,” Williams said. “I had a lot of fun with her, but she was always very coachable. She picked us quite easily the things we tried to stress with her in the short time we were together.
“Breanna Stewart wasn’t even in college at the time. But she was a sponge. You could see her look you in the eye and sense she would go out on the floor and try to execute what she’s been taught. She was a joy to coach. …Her potential is really unlimited. She is so unselfish, yet can score in so many different ways.
“She will be one of the greatest to ever play the game by the time her career is done. And if you watch her, to can see how she adds different facets to her game to help her get better; we’ll do what we can, but I don’t think there is anyone in the country that really can stop her. You just try to limit her.
“Morgan was the one who kind of keeps everything together a glue type player who gets it done without a lot of praise.”
Williams had a chance to say hello to KML, Hartley and Dolson in October during The American’s media day at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Meanwhile, the Knights are 7-4 at open play in The American Saturday at Houston. As much as she is able to prepare her players for UConn, she knows they will have to experience it first for themselves.
“I don’t know how much my experience with them with help,” Williams said. “My players haven’t seen them yet. Until they go toe-to-toe, it’s hard to get a feel.
“Briahanna Jackson [UCF’s 5-4 sophomore guard and Conference American rookie of the year last season] is a believer. She went up against them in the USA Basketball trials and she knows they can play.