JMU women’s basketball is currently 6-2 and coming off a trip to the quarterfinals in the WNIT last season. One of the reasons for the program’s sustained success has been because of redshirt senior center Kayla Cooper Williams' dominance in the paint.
She has become a key role in JMU’s defense and has helped JMU reached the WNIT three occasions and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2015. After accumulating 200 defensive rebounds and 98 blocks, Cooper Williams earned CAA All-Defensive team and the CAA Defensive Player of the Year.
“It’s a very big honor to have that,” Cooper Williams said. “But, I try not to let that carry over into this year. There’s a lot of things that I could improve my game.”
Since entering the program in 2015, the Dumfries, Virginia, native has set the team record in blocks (284) and ranks third all-time in rebounds (936). JMU head coach Sean O’Regan acknowledged how Cooper Williams has grown a player and remembers the first time he saw her on the hardwood.
“The first time I saw Kayla, it felt like she weighed about 72 pounds at six-foot-two,” O’Regan said. “She looked a little bit bigger at the AAU game I saw her at ... [She’s] super athletic always, wiry and she always had an ability to block shots.
Her defensive game has grown throughout her career, but one thing remained constant has been her ability to block shots. Despite her accomplishments, she’s had her share of obstacles along the way that have helped her development.
“I think she’s had an interesting road because her freshman year, she was playing with a pretty veteran team, and all she had to do was rebound and defend and didn’t have to worry about anything else,” O’Regan said. “Watching her flourish in that role, she was matured pretty quickly.”
After winning Rookie of the Year, she faced one of the biggest challenges during her sophomore season. In the first exhibition game, she tore her ACL and was forced to sit out the entire season, a process O’Regan remembers.
“So, now those motions, those jumps, those landings — now she’s kind of thinking about it, second-guessing a little bit,” O’Regan said. “So watching her play a little tentative and working herself through that year and coming back her redshirt junior year and winning Defensive Player of the Year, I think says a lot about her perseverance, her resiliency, and she’s got a strong will, and she’s got a quiet perfectionist in her.”
She set a career-high seven blocks against Towson in 2017 as well as setting the program record in blocks last season against William & Mary. Her nine blocks against Towson last season created one of the best defensive games of her career.
Her teammate, senior guard Kamiah Smalls, says her shot-blocking is the best aspect of her defensive game, and her defensive mentality is the same regardless of the opponent.
“You come in the paint, you’re getting your shot blocked by Kayla Cooper Williams,” Smalls said. It doesn’t matter who you are or the name that’s on your jersey; we’re attacking everybody the same. It’s about JMU women’s basketball; it’s not about anybody else.”
Since Smalls began playing with Cooper Williams during the 2016-17 season, she’s seen numerous blocks and great defensive games from her. One block that stands as Smalls’ all-time favorite block came two years ago in the WNIT against East Tennessee State University.
“The girl goes up for, like, this layup that’s, like, kind of soft,” Smalls said. “She had been talking a lot of trash the whole game, and Kayla, like, demolishes it back, and the girl falls on her back, and it’s amazing. I watched that clip all the time, to be honest; it’s pretty good.”
So far in her career, Cooper Williams is already the program leader in blocks and became the fourth player in JMU history to earn her 900th rebound in the Nov. 17 victory over Saint John’s. While both milestones are impressive, she says she doesn’t hold one higher than the other.
Her impact goes beyond the court. She has the same effect when she’s on the sidelines as well by helping her teammates and bringing energy to the team. She’s improved her demeanor on the court and has started to become more vocal.
“I’ve tried to be a lot more vocal this year and just speaking up, making sure on and off the court, I’m talking a lot more,” Cooper Williams said.
Eight games into the season, she’s stayed in her typical form, blocking 25 shots. As the season progresses, Cooper Williams said she knows there’s room for improvement, and as the team dynamic changes, O’Regan said she knows she’ll have a strong year and hopes she gets recognized for it.
“Her maturity level, her leadership, how hard she works is never going to change,” O’Regan said. “I know she’s going to have as good a year, if not better. I hope she gets recognized in that way, too. It started with the Lisa Leslie list … It’s going to be a fun year watching her.”
Contact Jason Clampitt at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more basketball coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.