Even as a freshman last season, Long Reach guard Kiana Williams stood out among the rest. Poised and confident with the ball in her hands, she was immediately a leader for the Lightning.
But it was this winter, in her second year with the program, that she took her game to the next level. She finished as a team leader in points (16.3 points per game), assists (4.5 per game) and steals (five per game), while also coming down with 6.1 rebounds per game, as a point guard.
Her play has changed the perception of Long Reach girls basketball and upped the expectations of the program as a whole. And, after helping the Lightning to a 17-6 overall mark and a 3A sectional final berth, the sophomore guard has been named this year’s Howard County Times/Columbia Flier girls basketball Player of the Year.
“I think last season, it was not a surprise but she was different than a lot of what we’ve seen in Howard County in the past. But the difference between this year and last year, well most importantly is her focus. Her focus is just so different than it was compared to last year,” said Lightning coach Kelli Cofield. “She was able to finish a lot better this year. Her ball handling has been great both years, but her ball control… She improved dramatically in her 3-point shooting and also the mid-ranged game. But I think the biggest difference was being able to finish in the paint and in traffic.
"This offseason, when she came back I told her she lost a tremendous amount of weight. She’s toned up, she put on some muscle; she works on every aspect of her game. Mentally, I know she plays with a lot of older girls over the summer in the offseason, which I think helped her dramatically, but she’s in the gym all the time. After practice she’s in the gym. She’s in the weight room all the time, so really every aspect of her game, she really improved over the offseason and it showed."
Williams was the leader of an upstart Long Reach squad, which surprised the league and became a top-four county team by season’s end. Early in the season, the Lightning upset eventual 3A state champion Glenelg, 38-35. Williams finished with a game-high 21 points and knocked down the go-ahead bucket in the win. Then a few games later, Long Reach handed Howard — eventual county champions — its first loss of the season, 46-36, as Williams put up a game-high 16 points in the outing.
After a 15-4 regular season, the Lightning defeated Wilde Lake and Centennial in the first two rounds of the playoffs before losing to Glenelg in the sectional final. Williams upped her play during the postseason, averaging nearly 23 points and nine rebounds per game.
“I just wanted to get better, not just myself but as a team. We came up short this year losing in the third round, but our goal was to go to states. The (best) thing I was happy about, even though we didn’t reach where we wanted to, is that we came together,” Williams said. “Competing against some of the ladies like Jessica Foster and them — I’ve been playing with her since like sixth grade, so it made it interesting and it made us want to compete harder next year when we play them. Knowing that they won a state championship, I give them much respect for that, but it’s going to make us want to beat them just because they won that.”
Williams registered eight outings of at least 20 points this year, with a season-high of 29 points earlier in the season and failed to reach double-digit point totals just twice on the year. She particularly thrives is in the open floor, where she registered a third of her points, which is a credit to her ability to create turnovers on the defensive end.
“Kiana is getting five, six deflections a game (and) about five steals per game. A third of her points are out in transition. Whenever they were able to get out in transition, getting in the passing lanes, speeding up the game, it helps us out and makes the half court a lot easier,” Cofield said. “I think her best asset is the ability to create for both herself and her teammates. Transition buckets, I think it gets her into her flow a lot easier, gets her confidence up.”
The emergence of freshman guard Lyric Swann has also aided the production of Williams. The two underclassmen create one of the best duos in the league, as each has similar abilities in terms of knocking down shots, generating steals and finishing off the dribble.
“It has been an amazing asset for us to have them out on the court at the same time because they both play the point guard position, they both can see the court very well and make decisions,” Cofield said. “At times we want to take Kiana off the ball in more of a scoring position and we can put Lyric out there."
Williams has taken on a leadership role in her second season, especially when it comes to Long Reach’s young players like Swann.
“That’s something that (Long Reach assistant) coach (Rashida) Challenger and I have been talking about from last year. We always want our seniors to lead us, but we really want our point guard to be that coach on the court and that was another improvement that she really worked on this year,” Cofield said. “From this year to last year, we improved in our talent base, but Kiana is still one of the most talented girls on the court at any given time, so just being able to lead as a youngster is just something that she’s been working on every day. She’s not all the way there yet but she’s greatly improved. Coach Challenger put a lot of pressure on her in that area, because she was a point guard when she played. Having that voice in her ear has been great.”
Williams thanked her coaches, family and teammates after hearing the news about the honor of receiving player of the year, but the dynamic guard isn’t satisfied with just the individual accolade. Her goals reach much higher, with the first in claiming a state title before her varsity career is over.
“I just want to thank my family and coach Kelli Cofield, and my teammates for putting me in position to succeed (and) for my teammates for their hard work,” Williams said. “Yes that’s my goal before senior year is over. We were counting on it this year, but we just came up short. I think next year, since this was our first year playing together, I think we’ll have more chemistry together… we’ll just jump at it right from the start.”
Cofield admitted Williams is one of the most skilled players she has ever coached, but for her, it is more about the fun of working with a kid who loves the game as Williams truly does.
“She’s such a fun kid. She loves basketball. Kiana really loves to play ... It’s fun for her it’s not a job, but yes, she’s one of the most talented girls that I’ve seen, especially in Howard County,” Cofield said. “We’re not used to girls with the ball handling skills that she has. She has more of a city approach to the game, which we haven’t seen in the county thus far. So it’s fun, it’s fun coaching her. Coach Challenger and I, we’re fans like everybody else. Some of the stuff she does on the court, we enjoy watching it as well. Some of the passes she makes, some of the buckets she’s able to create — it’s fun, it’s really a joy to watch her do it. She enjoys the game. She’s not a cocky athlete, she plays hard, so it’s been a great two years thus far.”
Watching Williams work on the court, nobody would guess she was an underclassman, but that is not a coincidence. In the offseason, she trains with girls who are two and three years older, playing for DC Futures AAU squad year-around.
“During the offseason I started to train more. I got to the gym like every day. I would get some shots up or do some ball handling and AAU, since I play 17U and 18U with twelfth graders and stuff, my coaches got me ready for that because I was a freshman playing up,” she explained. “He was training me hard and I had a personal trainer and they were getting me ready to play for this year. I feel like I’m progressing as each year goes on and I feel like I will progress even more next year, I’m hoping that I do. I’m really looking forward to seeing how I get from the AAU season going on to high school again next year.”
According to Williams, it is her preparation during the offseason — working with older girls, heading to the gym everyday, tuning her game – that helps set her apart from the rest of the talent in Howard County.
“I think how I prepare myself before games and how I train myself in the offseason is different than anybody. I take it serious and I like playing every day, and I’m always busy. That’s what makes me get better compared to anybody else,” Williams said. “I would say, I’ve been in the gym a lot, I’m more in shape, so my stamina and also my ball handling and shooting would be my most changes from this year compared to last year. I want to improve on getting my shot consistent and my ball handling faster, and getting my teammates to get better in the offseason.”
AAU season is currently underway, with Williams competing in her first tournament the second week of April. AAU runs pretty much up to the start of the varsity season, where the Lightning are primed to rise even farther up the ranks next season.
“We’re only losing one senior and our freshmen are a big impact on this team, especially like the seniors on this team next year — Devon Williams and Emily Joyce, they still have one year and I feel like (freshmen) Lyric Swann, Arianna Briggs and Haley (Thompson) they will get a lot better over the summer,” Williams said. “Haley plays AAU with me, so we train a lot together to get us prepared for that. So I believe yeah, next year we’re going to (be) better than we were this year and we’re going to be the team to watch out for.”
Williams hopes to continue playing basketball at the collegiate level and named NCAA powerhouse programs like Maryland, Ohio State, Notre Dame and UCONN as some of school’s she hopes to earn a scholarship and play for at the next level.
“I want to go far, but it comes first with my grades and stuff, so I got to make sure I keep them up, but if I do I see me going pretty far as long as I don’t have any injuries or anything, going to a DI college,” she said. “A dream school, I kind of want to go to Maryland. Maryland is one of the schools that I like. Notre Dame, Ohio State and Connecticut, so out of those top, Connecticut is my dream school and Maryland.”
Coming off a dominant sophomore year, Cofield reiterated that Williams still has plenty of room to grow heading into her last two seasons of high school ball.
“I don’t think she’ll fall into complacency. Coach and I won’t even allow that because while that is a great accolade to be Player of the Year, or even be mentioned for Player of the Year in high school, she has a lot more expectations for herself. We have a lot more expectations for her as well. We won’t really let that complacency to set in, because we haven’t won anything yet. It’s a team sport, so until we reached that level we don’t have room to be complacent, she or any of us,” Cofield added. “Her ceiling is limitless. I definitely think she can play at the next level and play high at the next level, but as of right now we want to improve on that jump shot — it’s hard, because I cant even put it into words. She has that it-factor that can be beneficial for us, and any college that is looking at her.”