Ronni Williams knew something was off.
It was early December, near the end of the Florida women’s basketball team’s non-conference slate, and the Gators’ top player had fallen into a slump.
After averaging a team-best 13 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, her next three games were subpar at best.
Six points, three rebounds.
Four points, four rebounds.
Eight points, four rebounds.
They were nowhere near the standards Ronni sets for herself.
Before any negativity could get into Ronni’s head, Jaterra Bonds, a four-year letterwinner for UF from 2010-2014 who works as a member of the scout team for the Gators, pulled Ronni to the side.
She needed to set the record straight.
"You’re supposed to be, no, you are one of the top players in the country," Ronni remembers Bonds telling her. "You can’t let one bad performance dictate how the rest of your season turns out."
Ronni heard the message loud and clear. She has since gone on to play her best season in a Gators jersey.
And as No. 5-seed Florida opens NCAA Tournament play against No. 12-seed Albany at noon this Friday in Syracuse, New York, Ronni will look to be the driving force she has been all season long.
"We worked hard all year for this moment right here," Ronni said. "Now that we actually get a chance to play and compete, it feels great."
• • •
Ronni has a knack for making plays from anywhere on the court.
She’s a presence in the post, able to score with her back to the basket and fight for every rebound like a center.
She’s protective of the ball, able to drive to the basket or dish the ball out to her teammates like a point guard.
Or if she’s in the mood, she’ll eye a defender down before faking them out and swishing a jumper.
Her tenacity is present at all points in the game, whether she’s hauling in a double-double or cheering on her teammates from the bench.
"She’s that one person you don’t want play against because she’s going to get after it no matter what," junior Simone Westbrook said.
Ronni’s versatility was on display all season, and it’s why she has proven to be one of Florida’s biggest assets during what is shaping out to be the team’s best season under coach Amanda Butler.
Ronni, a 6-foot forward in her junior year, leads the team with 11 points and 7.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.0 percent from the field and 66.3 percent from the free-throw line en route to earning All-Southeastern Conference second-team honors.
She paces the team with 17 double-figure scoring games and eight double-doubles.
Her best showing came during the Gators’ upset over then-No. 12 Texas A&M, when she became the first UF player since 2007 to post 20 points and 15 rebounds.
"You can watch her play for two seconds and tell she’s unique and something that can be a program impacter in a very, very big way," Butler said. "She’s just a really solid and normal person in a lot of ways with exceptional gifts."
• • •
Ronni came to UF with a history of success and a desire to polish her game.
A four-year letterwinner and McDonald’s All-American out of Atlantic High in Daytona Beach, Ronni knew she was the only person who would limit how far she would go.
She comes to the gym every day, ready to improve.
To Jaterra Bonds, Ronni is still her little All-American almost three years later.
"That was my baby when she got here," said Bonds, who was a senior when Ronni entered Florida’s program as a freshman in 2013. "I always knew she was going to be one of the best players in our league."
But it wasn’t an easy road for Ronni when she first got to Florida.
In 33 games as a freshman, she fouled out a school-record 16 times.
As a sophomore, she was thrust into a leadership role on a team that struggled to find consistency.
"Her growing years were her first two years," Bonds said. "They almost forced her to get to where she is now."
And Ronni’s improvement isn’t just helping herself.
Butler said Ronni’s effort is contagious, helping her teammates play to their fullest potential.
"She’s done a really good job of trying to make a bigger impact," Butler said, "not just as a scorer or a rebounder or the things that show up in the statistical columns, but impacting everybody around her on a championship level."
• • •
Even with all the regular-season success and the improvements she’s made, Ronni said the ultimate goal is still within reach.
A national title.
"That’s what we’re here for," she said. "That’s what we’re doing it for at the end of the day is to win."
The first step in that journey starts Friday against Albany.
The Great Danes (27-4) made the tournament after winning the American East Tournament and have won 20 of their last 21 heading into the noon tip with the Gators.
Should Florida advance, a long road will ensue.
But Florida isn’t worrying about their opponent.
Like they have all season, the Gators will control the controllables, and that starts with playing their style of basketball — an aggressive, get-after-the-ball style of play that has reaped dividends this season.
It’s a style that’s been proven to work time and time again.
Against then-No. 9 Florida State, a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the Gators’ first win of the year after a lackluster outing four days earlier in their season opener against Temple.
Against Tennessee, a crucial road contest that Florida won even without Butler on the sidelines as she dealt with a family emergency.
Against Kentucky and Texas A&M, back-to-back home wins against top-15 opponents in polar opposite fashions.
They’re hoping it works in their favor again.
"They can go all the way," Bonds said. "I think they need to keep getting better and keep clicking, but I think they have a really good chance of getting really deep in the tournament and messing up some people’s brackets."
And Ronni Williams will be leading the charge.
"It’s a blessing that I have the trust from my teammates and my coaches to be able to lead the team in the right direction. … We’re tough and we carry ourselves with class," Ronni said. "We’re able to show that in a way for our team."