FRIDAY, JANUARY 18, 2008
Local girl becoming "humble" living legend

Jan. 18, 2008

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - GALLERY

The name Artis Gilmore has become synonymous with Jacksonville University basketball no matter where you go.

The silent giant put a small private school on the men's basketball national scene during the early 1970's, just as quickly as Jed Clampett moved his family to Beverly Hills with a single shot of his rifle.

Several decades later, the lore and legend attributed to Gilmore so long ago has been reborn within the historic walls of Swisher Gymnasium in 2008. The difference now is that the legend has transcended to another gender on a program without a storied past.

Enter Ashley Williams. A lanky post player from Jacksonville, Fla., Williams wouldn't be the first person chosen for a pick-up game in the school yard due to her less than imposing 5-foot-11 stature (although she'll say she's more like 5-foot-9, if you ask her). You can fill in the cliché of your choice as you continue but, truth be told, the numbers don't lie.

In just two and a half seasons, Williams has claimed so many "firsts" in the brief history of the JU women's basketball program (which began play in 1999) that it practically reads like a scroll: Two-time first team all-Atlantic Sun Conference, A-Sun preseason all-conference and A-Sun Preseason "Player of the Year"; JU single-season records - points in a season (509), field goals made (197) and field-goal percentage (.562); JU career records - points (1,275) and blocks (109) with field-goal percentage, steals and free throws made well within reach.

"I never pay attention to where I'm at in the record books," Williams said. "I knew I was close to breaking 1,000 points but I didn't know I was about to break the school record until my family mentioned it to me. I don't calculate my stats so I never know what kind of records I break unless someone says something to me or I read it on the internet."

Along with her individual achievements, the team success enjoyed by the Dolphins this season has drawn comparisons to the greatest men's team in JU history, 1969-70, which was led by Gilmore. Both squads have rewrote the history books, enjoyed national recognition and viewed as the "foundation" that future generations reflect upon.

JU currently sits atop the conference standings with a 14-3 overall record and a 4-0 mark in A-Sun play (each program records). The Dolphins own the second-longest home winning streak in the nation (17 games) and is in the midst of an eight-game winning streak which garnered the program its first vote in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Top 25 Poll on Jan. 8.

Williams says the team set lofty goals prior to the start of the season, based upon the continued success of the program each year, but the results to this point are far beyond their imagination.

"We thought we had a good chance to run the table in conference play but we never expected to receive votes in the national polls," Williams said. "We are just trying to take one step at a time with the goals we've set for the year and if we attain them, we will be in the NCAA Tournament at the end of the season. It's something every player wants and we have a good chance to make that happen this year."

But through all of the awards, stats, records and ceremonies, Williams is the most reluctant star you will find. Instead of sitting down for an interview to talk about herself, she prefers to have her "humble pie," shrug her shoulders and stare at the floor with a shy smile.

"I just don't like to talk about myself like that," Williams said as she shifts in her chair and pulls the hood back on her sweater. "I prefer to go out on the court and just play."

Those playing days began for Williams on AAU teams when she was 11 years old. Several people thought she should stop playing softball because of her height and she was eventually signed up. Reluctant at first, Williams started to enjoy the traveling and interacting with her teammates as her skills began to develop. In her early years at Wolfson High School, she began to realize that basketball could be something that could continue in college.

After completing her senior season at Arlington Country Day High School, Williams was recruited by Florida A&M, North Florida, JU and Charlotte but eventually ended up at North Florida Community College in the end.

"I thought I was going to end up at Florida A&M but nothing came from it and junior college was the only option I had left," said Williams. "I had spoken to JU initially, but Coach (Jill) Dunn was just entering her first season as the new coach so we never made the connection."

It didn't take long for the Dolphins to notice what was growing in their back yard as Williams led all Florida jucos in scoring and earned team MVP honors with an average of 22 points and 10 rebounds per contest. The fact that she wanted to stay close to home also bode well for JU as well.

"We were very fortunate to get Ashley," Dunn said. "She was eligible to come out of North Florida after her freshmen year and we were one of the few schools who knew that. Also, I think a lot of other coaches backed off of Ashley because of her size. People are looking for much bigger post players, but obviously her size hasn't slowed her down at all.

"I knew Ashley had potential when we were recruiting her, but I also knew she was no where near the player she could become if she would continue to work on her game. She had all the tools and we just needed to fine tune them and sharpen them up."

So how does an undersized, skinny post player become such a dominating force? In simple terms, Williams possesses an abundance of athleticism mixed with natural instincts. Like a gazelle on the open plains, she can outrun other posts on the break and beat her defenders to the blocks. Once she gathers the pass in the post with her soft, sturdy hands, she naturally turns her elbows into her defender to create enough separation to shoot over her opponent. With her quickness and leaping ability (three feet off the floor when she shoots), she is able to fade up and away or slither past the defense to take advantage of her soft shooting touch. By adding an up-and-under move and 3-point range in college with her excellent free throw shooting, she is a difficult player for opponents to focus on defensively.

"Ashley knows how to score," said Dunn. "Some players just have a knack for scoring and she is one of them. She has a lot of different ways to beat you, but she understands the game very well and is extremely smart on the court. She doesn't force bad shots if she is doubled and tripled team and will find her open teammate."

Defensively, Williams is just as terrorizing for opposing head coaches because of her quickness and smarts. An unorthodox shot blocker, she prefers to trail her assignment in the paint in order to rip the ball away from behind as the player attempts to shoot at the basket. Her instinct in the passing lanes, fast reflexes, and her ability to maneuver quickly in the post creates many opportunities for steals.

"I've never really had anyone coach me until I got to JU," Williams said when asked where she picked up her post moves. "I always played against bigger players when I was younger so I got used to finding ways to score. My teammates always tell me that I hit them with my elbows when I make a move but I really don't know that I'm doing it. On defense, I just think it's easier to block a shot from behind than being in front."

Now that the raw ability is developed, there have been discussions among friends, family members and fans about how far her career can go. An opportunity to make it in the WNBA or continuing her career overseas could be options but Williams will take the same approach she has always made when dealing with the sport.

"If an opportunity presents itself for me to continue my career, then I'll pursue it, but it's not something I worry about," said Williams. "If the opportunity isn't there, then I'll be done with basketball and find a career. I enjoy the competition during games and being around my teammates but basketball is not something that I need to do."

Whatever she decides, the records, accolades and team achievements will finalize as her career comes to an end in March. But the mystique surrounding her accomplishments and the impact she has had on the program will continue to linger long after she hangs up her shoes.

"The two words that I would use to describe Ashley's three years at JU are consistency and dominance," said Dunn. "She will leave JU with her name in almost every record book in just three years of play. She has been a huge part of our program since she stepped on campus her sophomore year, but years from now she will be a name many will not forget when they talk about JU women's basketball. That is the impact she has had on this program and a huge reason why we have been successful as a team."