Williams earns Gophers MVP honors

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Not since Lea Blackwell in 1989 has a Black player for Minnesota won the early-season women’s basketball tournament Most Valuable Player award. That 16-year drought was finally snapped last weekend as sophomore center Natasha Williams was singularly honored.

Before fall practices began, Head Coach Pam Borton said that Williams, a 6’-3” post player from Skokie, Illinois, was among the returning Gopher players who worked on improving her game during the off-season. In her first two collegiate starts last weekend, Williams had a career-high 26 points and five blocks against the University of San Francisco, then a 13-point, nine-rebound performance against Stanford as Minnesota (2-0) captured its sixth consecutive tournament title, 12th overall.

“Tasha is getting better by the day and the second,” notes Borton. “It is all because of her work ethic. She has a lot of confidence about her and has great composure as an individual and as a player. I know what Tasha is going to give us in a game because I see it in practice every day. She is playing the way she practices every day.”

“My whole mentality this tournament was to be calm and play my game,” says Williams, whose 39 total points led all tournament players.

Sophomore forward/center Lauren Lacey of Olympia Fields, Illinois, Williams’ close friend since high school and current roommate, also displayed her off-season improvement last weekend. The 6’-3” Lacey was the Gophers’ second leading scorer with 12 points against San Francisco, and had a career-high 14 points against Stanford.

Both second-year Chicago-area players had freshman campaigns that can be simply categorized as elevator seasons — up and down — as playing time was mostly slim. “When we had a Kodak All-American [Janel McCarville], we gave them as much time as we could give them,” says Borton of the two.

Last season, the two players flip-flopped in abilities: Williams was better defensively than Lacey; while Lacey led Williams offensively. “[Williams] came in as a defensive player and shot blocker,” recalls Borton. “Now she is one of our best post offensive players.”

On Lacey, Borton notes, “You can always count on Lauren to give you some points, but she got to play defense on the other end.” With her 10-rebound performance in last weekend’s two wins, Lacey is showing that her defense is improving, the coach says. Adds Lacey, “I just try to be consistent, and not just in games but in practices as well.”

It looks like the two post players now have a better balance in their games — Williams and Lacey can score and bang with any post player. Just ask Stanford Coach Tara VanDerveer, who coaches one of the nation’s best in 6’-3” junior center Brooke Smith; Smith finished last season No. 7 in the country in field goal percentage.

“Williams was taking candy from a baby,” an impressed VanDerveer remarks. “We didn’t want her to just catch the ball and shoot.” And she added, “I thought Lacey did a real nice job.”

Nonetheless, winning MVP honors was humbling for Williams, who had an ear-to-ear smile afterwards. “It is a great accomplishment so far,” she says, adding that she also was excited for her roommate. “I’m very happy for [Lacey], too, because both our mentalities are to work hard and take advantage of the opportunities that we get this year.”

When asked if Williams has locked up a starting spot when the Gophers compete this weekend in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands, Borton was noncommittal: “I never tell my kids that they solidified starting positions. They have to continue to come to practice, [work] hard, and that’s how they earn their playing time, whether they are starting or coming off the bench.”

One thing is certain, she predicts: Both Williams and Lacey will play. “They both have great skills and complement each other very well,” the coach concludes. “I am extremely pleased that they have come along this quickly. They are getting better every time. The best is yet to come.”

Extra points…

…Minnesota and Stanford tied for the most Black players on their rosters (five each) in the tournament, followed by San Francisco (four) and Long Island University (three). Long Island had the most foreign-born players (six).

…Heading into the November 23 contest against Byron Scott’s New Orleans Hornets, Wolves Coach Dwane Casey is now 3-0 thus far this season in head-to-head match-ups against other Black NBA head coaches. He has defeated Nate McMillan (Portland), Eddie Jordan (Washington), and Charlotte’s Bernie Bickerstaff.

…Three Black officials — Derrick Stafford, Leon Wood, and Violet Palmer, the league’s only female referee — worked last week’s nationally televised Wolves-Washington game.

…The Minnesota Lynx lost forward Stacey Lovelace-Tolbert last week in the 2005 WNBA Chicago Expansion Draft. She will be sorely missed.

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