Rekindling a spark: How LaDazhia Williams is regaining her confidence with Missouri women’s basketball

After two rough seasons with the Gamecocks, Williams found her footing — and joy for the game — with the Tigers.

LaDazhia Williams lost her passion for basketball while she was on one of the most successful teams of the last decade. Her mom could tell, even on television. Chanel Griffin often watched her daughter slump at the end of the South Carolina bench toward the end of every game. As the 2018-19 season drew to a close, the body language became more obvious: shoulders slumped, eyes glazed over and head down.

She was the opposite of the girl Griffin had watched in high school, the girl who played freely with visible joy.

“I could [read] her, so I knew,” Griffin said. “The look in her eyes — I knew she wasn’t happy.”

Williams wasn’t. Her two seasons with the Gamecocks sapped the joy and confidence she played with in high school. At the end of her sophomore year, the forward decided to leave a women’s basketball blue blood and enter the transfer portal. In May 2019, Williams announced her decision to play for Missouri women’s basketball, where she has started to find her love for the sport –– and confidence –– once again.

A top-50 recruit out of Lakewood Ranch High School in Bradenton, Florida, Williams committed to South Carolina in September 2016. On paper, the setup is any high school hooper’s dream. Coached by Dawn Staley, who also coaches the U.S. women’s national basketball team, the Gamecocks make deep NCAA Tournament runs annually –– last winning a national championship in 2017.

In her two seasons in Columbia, South Carolina, Williams played in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. She tested her game against future WNBA No. 1 overall pick A’ja Wilson in practice every day. But throughout two seasons, averaging just over six minutes a game, Williams never felt satisfied.

To rekindle her joy for the game, she needed a change of scenery.

“It was kind of about finding my confidence again,” Williams said.

Former Lakewood Ranch women’s basketball coach Tina Hadley remembers the first time she met Williams. A seventh grader with just one year of recreational basketball experience, Williams stood at 5 feet, 11 inches with natural athleticism and plenty of potential. Like any unnaturally tall teenager, she was also a little clumsy.

“She knew that she wanted to play basketball, but at the time she didn’t want the basketball,” Hadley said.

So each practice, Hadley stationed Williams under the hoop. There, Hadley helped incorporate an array of spins, up-and-under moves and drop steps into the forward’s game.

One common exercise was called “Mikans,” a finishing drill in which Williams had to continuously shoot standing layups from alternating sides of the hoop. When Hadley noticed that the Missouri women’s basketball Twitter account posted a video of Williams doing two-ball Mikans before the 2020-21 season, she couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Who taught you that?” Hadley texted Williams.

“Yeah,” Williams responded. “I told [Missouri coach Robin Pingeton] that my high school coach made me do this.”

Williams achieved both personal and team success during her time at Lakewood Ranch. The Florida Association of Basketball Coaches named her first-team All-State three seasons, and she finished her high school career as the school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder. She led the Mustangs to their first state championship her junior season.

By the time senior year rolled around, Williams played with joy and confidence. She led her team in scoring, and opponents didn’t have an answer for her height and skill. Nothing could slow her down, not even a fairly significant injury.

In December 2016, Williams played in the She Got Game Classic just days after suffering a hairline fracture in her foot. The 6-foot-4-inch forward arrived at the gym in a walking boot, slipped it off, scored 30 points, then pulled the boot back on.

“She loved the game, and it was fun to her,” Griffin said. “I think when she got into college, it got to be more serious, and I think it became a little less fun for her.”

Even before her 30-point performance in the tournament, the Gamecocks were all-in on Williams. They needed to fill a void left by forward Alaina Coates’ departure to the WNBA and believed Williams could eventually grow into the role.

South Carolina began to send representatives to each of Williams’ tournament games at Lakewood Ranch to show support, but also to deliver the subtle message that Staley and her staff were fully invested in the talented big.

“You know, you probably need to go to who’s showing you the most interest,” Griffin told her daughter at the time.

When Staley offered Williams a spot in the Gamecocks’ 2017 class, the forward jumped at the opportunity to join the reigning NCAA champions. When she got there, though, she never found any sort of rhythm.

Williams played a season-high 17 minutes against Tennessee her freshman season and averaged 1.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game sophomore year, but she never felt as though she received an opportunity to fully prove herself.

“I was on a team with A’ja [Wilson], so I went against her every day in practice, but didn’t find my footing there,” Williams said.

Ranked No. 48 in ESPN’s HoopGurlz recruiting rankings, Williams held offers from several schools –– from Florida State to North Carolina –– and went on numerous official visits. But she believed South Carolina would be best for her because of its early, dedicated commitment to her and Staley’s track record with player development.

“We thought it was going to be a great fit because she was a player like A’Ja [Wilson], and Dawn had developed her,” Griffin said. “We were hoping LaDazhia would get that same guidance and development, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Williams and Hadley kept in touch during those turbulent years at South Carolina. Even though Hadley didn’t know the extent of her former star’s internal struggle, she continued to encourage Williams to keep her head up.

“I wasn’t there,” Hadley said. “I didn’t know what was going on, so I was just encouraging her and told her to go hard during practice.”

At the end of her sophomore year, Williams told Griffin that she needed to transfer schools. While difficult, Griffin encouraged it because she wanted to see that look of joy in her daughter’s eyes again.

“I felt like I had a big influence on her deciding to go to [South Carolina],” Griffin said. “This time around, I wanted it to be totally all her. So I just decided to support whatever decision she wanted to make.”

When Williams entered the transfer portal, Missouri’s coaching staff reached out almost immediately. They called both her AAU and high school coaches. When Williams told her mom that she was considering Missouri, it shocked Griffin because of the heated relationship between the two programs –– one that involved Staley suing Missouri Athletic Director Jim Sterk for defamation in 2018.

But the two made the trip to Columbia, Missouri, after the season for a visit and some initial conversations with Pingeton and her staff. While in town, they watched the entire team practice and even sat down with guards Haley Troup, Amber Smith and forward Hannah Schuchts to ask more pointed questions. Everyone involved sold Williams and Griffin on the school that day.

“I don’t totally go off what I read or what I hear,” Griffin said. “I was going in with an open mind, and the coaches there were very nice and very friendly. They were very family oriented, and that was something she was looking for, and I was looking for as well.”

Williams is a quiet player, both on and off the court. She’s reserved, even at home, and Griffin will be the first to tell anyone that. But once she develops trust with someone and forms a bond, she thrives.

“If you want to get the most out of her as a head coach, you have to have a real relationship with her,” Hadley said.

Williams agreed, and it’s something that she felt she lacked in South Carolina.

“If you don’t talk to me, I’m not going to talk to you,” Williams said. “I think that did play a role at South Carolina.”

That’s exactly what Missouri’s coaching staff did. Led by Pingeton, it built a relationship with Williams as soon as she arrived on campus, which helped her eventually let down her guard.

“It is night and day,” Griffin said, when asked about the difference between Missouri’s coaching staff and the one at South Carolina.

The confidence that Williams lost after high school has returned at Missouri. She finished her redshirt junior season averaging 13.3 points per game and has scored in double figures all but three times in 18 games.

“She’s added an inside presence that we haven’t had for a while,” Pingeton said.

Two years ago, Griffin could read the pain and disappointment in her daughter's eyes from thousands of miles away –– a look no mother wants to see. Now, at Missouri, she’s noticed a significant change.

“She’s communicating more on the court,” Griffin said. “She’s talking to her teammates. She’s more team-oriented. I can tell that she has that spark back in her eyes.”

While Williams may not reach the Elite Eight again, she’s enjoying the game once more. And with one year of eligibility left, there’s still an even higher ceiling for her to reach.

“Missouri has not seen what she can do yet,” Hadley said.

Edited by Jack Soble |

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