Williams proves she belongs at D-I level

LORETTO – History will view Alli Williams as one of the best women’s basketball players ever at St. Francis, and that’s saying plenty given the program’s enormous success over the past 20 years.

The Bishop Guilfoyle product enters her senior season with a stat-stuffing resume of 1,359 points, 826 rebounds, one triple-double and one NCAA Tournament appearance. She will be the focal point of every opponent as the Red Flash try to make it back to the big dance, which is Williams’ only goal.

“It’s all or nothing now. It’s refuse to lose,” Williams said. “This is my last year, and I just refuse to accept anything less than getting an NEC championship. I have one, but one’s not good enough.”

For Williams, merely being good has never been good enough.

“She decided she wanted to be great instead of good,” St. Francis coach Joe Haigh said.

In the process, Williams has proved a lot of people wrong by her success at St. Francis.

Even though she helped lead BG to three PIAA state titles, skeptics believed Williams would probably only be a role player at the Division I level.

Williams knew that some were doubting her, which only motivated her more.

“It definitely did because people were always questioning the validity of our state championships,” she said. “We were Single-A, people said, ‘Oh, it’s not as good, it doesn’t really matter,’ and that kind of trickles down to if I was good enough to play college basketball. It was insulting.”

It didn’t take long for Williams to prove she could handle Division I as she averaged 8.6 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman in 2010-11.

“I got here freshman year, and I kind of realized I could do some really great things here at St. Francis,” Williams said. “That really fueled me to work that much harder.”

What really helped her go from good to great was the dedication and determination to get herself in better shape all-around. It’s taboo in sports – and society in general – to talk about women and their weight, but the bottom line for Williams is that she knew she needed to transform her body, and she’s done just that over the past two years.

“You can’t run up and down the floor, you can’t play 40 minutes the shape I was in freshman year,” Williams said.

“I played about 20 minutes [per game] my freshman year, and I wasn’t in the best of shape,” she added. “So I figured I’d better lose some weight, I’d better get myself ready because I’ve got to play 40 minutes if I want to make a real impact. No one ever told me I had to lose weight. I just woke up right at the end of freshman year and went on a diet, and I really haven’t looked back.”

Williams nearly doubled her point production as a sophomore, averaging 16.9 points, and improved substantially on the boards as well, averaging 8.8. She had a triple-double in late February of that year, with 18 points, 15 rebounds and 12 steals.

Last year, Williams scored 17.0 points per game and grabbed 10.7 rebounds. She also showed her versatility by tying for fourth in the country with 3.61 steals per game, a huge number for a forward as she was one of only two non-guards in the top 20.

“When she came in, she was talented athletically and played hard,” Haigh said. “But I think she would admit that she wasn’t the most skilled basketball player out there. She did a lot of the things she did in high school based on athletic ability.”

When she realized it took more to succeed in college, Williams made sure she put it in all the long hours and dedication to improve “across the board,” as Haigh said.

“She put a ton of time in, she worked on her shooting, worked on ball handling, her left hand,” the coach said.

Now Williams is a much more complete player than when she arrived at St. Francis. She was first-team all-Northeast Conference last year and likely will be again this season, and with a huge year, she could finish her career with 2,000 points and 1,200 rebounds.

As impressive as she is on the court, the occupational therapy major is, as Haigh said, “the model of what you would want a student-athlete to be.”

“Alli is great and deserves all the accolades this year. I loved coaching her,” said former SFU coach and current Providence coach Susan Robinson-Fruchtl, who recruited Williams.

St. Francis was picked to finish fourth in the NEC by the league’s coaches, so getting back to the NCAA Tournament will be a big challenge. Haigh has a game plan designed to get up and down the floor and shoot quickly – the goal is about every 10 seconds – and part of the reason he likes that style is because it fits Williams’ game.

“We get her on the move rather than running plays for her where a defense can scout the play and try and shut a play down,” the coach said. “We’ll get her in transition a ton.”

As the ultimate compliment to her skills, Haigh said he plans to use Williams “like the Miami Heat use LeBron James.” So clearly the entire offense will have to go through her.

“She’s going to have the whole defense keyed on her, and that can be very frustrating,” Haigh said. “Early in her career that was a little tough on her when you go to try and do something on the basketball court and you have three defenders on you.

“Her steps this year will be dealing with frustration when teams are keying on her, being stronger, improving the mental toughness and not getting down when things aren’t going right.”