Courtesy: Duke Sports Information Release: 01/09/2014
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By Jimmy DuPree, GoDuke The Magazine
DURHAM, N.C.-- Her résumé reads like a "Who's Who" of women's basketball — three-time gold medalist with USA Basketball teams and consensus national freshman of the year in 2012.
Oh, and she was the Morgan Wootten National Player of the Year coming out of high school in Virginia Beach.
But Elizabeth Williams chose to be a student-athlete at Duke for a variety of reasons, not just basketball — though that's a big one.
"Basketball-wise, I knew I'd be able to play with the senior class now with a lot of talent," said Williams, the Blue Devils' junior center. "Chelsea (Gray) is a great passer, and she's looking to pass. As a post player, you love guards like that.
"And then, of course, we've never won a national championship, so to be able to come here and perhaps make that happen is a big thing, too."
Williams' journey, both before arriving at Duke and during her matriculation, has been anything but routine.
Alex and Margaret Williams, Elizabeth's parents, left Nigeria for her father to study medicine, and she was born in Colchester, England, on June 23, 1993.
"We moved to the states, and the way the medical rules work, he had to re-do his residency over here," Williams said. "He did his residency at Connecticut and finished up his fellowship at Virginia, at Virginia."
Elizabeth showed academic talents at an early age.
"When she was in preschool, like 3 (years old), she was able to read," Alex Williams said. "This was just a natural thing. We've been very fortunate that all her teachers recognized that and supported her."
Athletic success, though on the soccer field before excelling on the basketball court, soon followed.
"She was very competitive in (recreation) soccer, then advanced rec," Alex Williams said. "We knew she was different. Even at that level, she played defense very intensely — goalie or wherever they had her.
"Both myself and her Mom, we were never big basketball people. We were more into soccer."
Elizabeth's athleticism, though, was recognized by others. That she was taller than most girls her age drew the attention of coaches.
"Someone said, 'Why don't you try out for basketball?'" Alex said, recalling that Elizabeth liked the sport almost immediately. "We got her a private trainer, and she began to develop quickly."
She led Princess Anne High School to state titles in 2009 and 2011, earning Parade magazine All-America recognition her final two years. After her senior season, she set a McDonald's All-American Game record with 23 and grabbed 11 rebounds on her way to being named the most valuable player.
After that, Williams helped USA Basketball's Under-19 team win a gold medal — her third in as many years beginning in Mexico City, then Toulouse, France, and finally in Puerto, Chile.
"You just see a lot of different styles of play when you play overseas, different ways that coaches run their teams, different players," Williams said. "You don't necessarily see big post players; you'll see basically five guards playing and you have to learn how to defend that.
"Bringing that to the college game is the thing — there are teams (that) use their posts as passers and screeners, and they'll step out and take a shot."
All the travel by her parents while showing support during USA Basketball competitions played a role in Elizabeth's college choice.
"I think my three main finalists were Virginia, Tennessee and (Duke)," Williams said. "There's a number of things (that I considered), but one thing that popped in my head first is that we're not too far from home and my family comes to a lot of my games.
"Even through AAU, they were always traveling a lot and I didn't want them to have to travel a lot to come watch me play."
It didn't hurt that Duke offered a specialized program that interested Elizabeth.
"I always wanted to do pre-med, and they have a thing called CAPE — Collegiate Athletes Pre-medical Experience," Williams said. "That's specifically for female student-athletes that are pre-med, so we get to shadow female doctors and go to clinics and do stuff like that. That was unique here.
"When they were recruiting me ... I got to meet the person who runs that and some of the doctors who run it. (Former Duke women's basketball star) Georgia Schweitzer was the first one to really do it, and that was really cool." Year-round competition, however, exacts a price.
"That long involvement with USA Basketball finally caught up with her legs that summer," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "She had some struggles following that, so I refer to her as a warrior because she's a tremendous leader, a person of great conviction and person who's been through an awful lot of adversity."
Williams said she considers her leg problems to be part of the learning process.
"I don't regret that at all," Williams said of her USA Basketball experiences. "The opportunity to play for the national team is not something that I'd ever give up. I think I learned a lot more about myself by going through that — knowing when to rest my body. It was good for me in learning when to push myself and when to let go a little bit.
"The injury, I think it started the latter part of my freshman year. I played on it, which made it a little worse. Then through sophomore year, I was never really 100 percent ... Finally, this summer, I really, really rested and progressed my way back."
And McCallie has helped reinforce the need for knowing when to take a break.
"Coach always says you want to be the player that she has to turn down, not turn up," Williams said. "If you're always out there working, she'll talk to you and say you need to relax. You don't have to over-do it.
"If you're tired, in a sense, you're hurting your team if you're not playing up to your capacity."
Teammates have noticed that Williams is more aggressive on the court and able to move more fluidly, though she remains a quiet force on the court.
"It's really fun to watch her this year, because she's healthy and it feels like she's starting to get her momentum back," Duke senior Haley Peters said. "Some of the athletic plays already this year, we haven't seen since she was a freshman because she's spent so much time with injuries the past couple of years. So it's exciting to see that.
"The thing about 'E' is that she doesn't complain; you never knew that she was really hurt. She just wouldn't say anything about it. She just went out and worked really hard. But it seems like, as she's gotten feeling better physically, she surprises herself sometimes and that's helping her confidence and helping her feel like she's the dominant player that she is."
The Blue Devils (15-1) opened ACC play on Sunday with a 64-47 win at Georgia Tech. Williams totaled her second straight double-double in the contest as she collected a game-high 18 points and 11 rebounds. On the season, Williams is averaging 13.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. One of the most remarkable statistics she has registered during her Duke career is she has blocked at least one shot in all 84 collegiate contests, which is the longest current streak in the NCAA.
"She's one of the best centers in the country, without question," McCallie said. "I think there's no limit to what she can do from here on out as she gets more acclimated. She's just got to play; she's got to play in practices and games. "She's got no hesitation, but her timing sometimes (is off)."
Veteran Duke players also would like to have Williams become a more vocal leader.
"She's very wise, very smart and kind," senior Tricia Liston said, adding that Williams leads team prayers before pregame meals and on flights. "She's always putting others in front of her. She's very religious; she believes in her faith and acts on that a lot. She's a very nice friend to have. You can talk to her about anything and she won't pass judgement; she'll just be there for advice."
McCallie said Williams already is someone younger players look to for guidance and will continue to evolve into that role.
"She's one of the most convicted people I know, principle-wise," McCallie said. "I think that she's beginning to understand that she makes a lot of sense. For Elizabeth, to me, (becoming more vocal on the court is) going to come from a place of logic and faith. She's going to figure out, 'Wait a minute.'
"She's got great things to say, great faith. She's going to begin to understand that the team is much better when she's vocal, aggressive and attacking. That's very important to Elizabeth, because the team is very central, and she puts the team in its proper place — she puts the team first."
The Williams family hosted the team for a dinner during the Norfolk Regional in March — where the Blue Devils were eliminated by Notre Dame in the Elite Eight — and they continue to attend most home games. They know what playing basketball at Duke means to Elizabeth.
"She wants to make a difference," Margaret Williams said. "Our prayer for her and the team is to win the national championship — the first for Duke women's basketball."