After a crucial bucket plus the foul against High Point late in the Big South Conference women’s basketball title game March 9, Winthrop freshman Erica Williams dropped into a squat, clinched her fists and let loose a primal scream.
Her high school basketball coach, Dale Earnhardt (not that Dale Earnhardt), might have laughed as he remembered the introspective girl that showed up at the Rabun Gap Nacoochee School five years prior. Williams’ hair-raising battle cry after a crucial shot that helped the Eagles to their first NCAA Tournament appearance was an eruption of the quiet strength she sharpened at the boarding school in the north Georgia Nantahala Forest, the place where she honed her game and readied herself to be a contributor for Kevin Cook’s basketball team from the minute she arrived in Rock Hill.
“I’ve watched some interviews with her this year and she handles herself very well,” Earnhardt said. “You should have seen her when she was an eighth- and ninth-grader; she was painfully shy. But I think this place helped her grow as a person.”
Williams has started every game for Winthrop this season and is second on the team in scoring at 15.6 points per game, filling a crucial scoring vacuum left by the graduation of Diana Choibekova last summer and the season-ending Achilles injury for sophomore Aliyah Kilpatrick. Williams also averages 7.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per outing, both also second highest on the team. Add in 50-plus percent field goal shooting and she was an obvious selection for the Big South Conference’s All-Freshman Team.
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Cook hasn’t been surprised by Williams’ early success.
“It’s what I was expecting,” he said with a grin.
What did surprise him was her consistency. Williams never hit the often talked-about “freshman wall,” at least not this season. Originally from Rex, Ga., southeast of Atlanta, Williams got homesickness out of the way as an eighth grader at Rabun Gap Nacoochee School, a 100-year-old Presbyterian boarding school nestled amidst the gently rolling hills of the western Georgia-North Carolina border.
“Eighth grade year was horrible,” she said. “I cried every weekend, told my mom to come pick me up, and she was like, ‘You know this is a big step for you, getting ready for college.’”
Yes, Retha Williams and her daughter were already thinking about college. Retha visited Rabun Gap about twice a month, and Williams grew in comfort as she filled in her free time with extracurriculars and made friends. She views it as an unquestionably positive experience.
“It helped me out a lot because being away from home, I was ready to make the step,” she said Thursday afternoon, before Winthrop’s women left for Durham where they’ll take on Duke Saturday at 11 a.m. “I was ready to go away from home.”
Williams left Rabun Gap as the program’s all-time leading scorer, with close to 3,000 points in five seasons, and was an All-State selection three straight years. Williams also was a two-time NCISAA 3A state shot put champion, an indicator of the 5-foot-10 small forward’s squat strength that makes her such a potent scorer in the post.
“I told coach Cook when they were recruiting her that she’s probably the strongest female that I’ve ever been around,” said Earnhardt. “I don’t think she knows how strong she can be.”
The grunt work of shot put practice mirrored Williams’ game on the basketball court.
“I would describe myself as an undersized post,” she said. “I love contact.”
Williams opted for Winthrop over Jacksonville, Mercer, Chattanooga, Western Carolina, East Carolina and Tennessee Tech. Cook got a player he thinks can help Winthrop’s program continue its recent upward development, especially because of her consistency.
“I just feel so blessed to coach her,” he said. “She never complains, she never takes a play off and you always know what you’re going to get day-to-day. Now how many people are like that in the world?
Rabun Gap won about 70 percent of its games during Williams’ stint at the school. Her AAU team, Georgia Metros of Atlanta, also won big and has produced countless women’s college basketball players, including current WNBA star Maya Moore. Combine all of that with shot put state titles, and it’s clear that Williams is used to success, something Cook wants to build around as he tries to make Winthrop’s NCAA Tournament berth a habit and not a one-off.
Williams is trying to relish the NCAA Tournament experience, but she, too, isn’t planning on it being her last visit with Winthrop.
“As a girl I always watched it on TV, but I never thought it would happen, and to actually be in it is crazy,” she said. “Now I know what it takes to get here, what we did this summer and throughout the season. I know for sure that we’ll get it next year and be in the tournament again.”
Cook mentioned during an interview Wednesday that he’s really comfortable coaching a quiet team, and few on the team are more naturally quiet than Williams. But there was nothing quiet about her celebration of the basket she scored late in the win over High Point.
“The emotions were so high that weekend. We didn’t want to go home without that trophy, so the emotions were there,” said Williams.
Williams is full of surprises like that. Her teammates discovered she had some moves when the team attended a step-dance show at Winthrop earlier in the season. Urged by her teammates to step on stage, Williams worked her way from the back to the front, stealing the spotlight for a minute and surprising her cohorts.
“I don’t know what came upon me but I just went out there and started dancing and everybody was like, ‘Woah!,’” Williams said, smiling. “Now, every time we go somewhere as a team I have to dance.”
In part because of Williams’ consistency and maturity, her teammates will get to dance this weekend, too.