UConn women’s basketball brings Aaliyah Edwards to Canada for homecoming: ‘Gonna be a surreal moment’

7 months ago
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Six years ago, Aaliyah Edwards sat inside Mattamy Athletic Centre and couldn’t help but be inspired watching UConn women’s basketball play live in Toronto.

The then-high school sophomore was just a fan of the Huskies back then, not yet recruited by Hall of Fame head coach Geno Auriemma.

She watched the ball fly around the court, almost effortlessly, from player to player before finding its way into the basket again and again. She watched in awe when Katie Lou Samuelson made seven straight 3-pointers. But it was hearing the crowd give fellow Canadian and Husky star Kia Nurse a standing ovation and warm reception that resonated most with Edwards, who grew up just three hours away from Toronto in Kingston, Ont.

“I think just seeing that type of competitiveness and relentlessness that I saw witnessing that game, it just helped me to be like, ‘OK, that’s the type of Div-1 NCAA basketball that I want to be a part of,’ ” she said Friday.

On Wednesday, it’ll be Edwards turn for the welcome home celebration.

The No. 17 Huskies travel back to Toronto this week to face Toronto Metropolitan University Wednesday night (6 p.m. on FS2) at Mattamy Athletic Centre for Edwards’ senior homecoming game.

Wednesday’s sold-out crowd will be filled with her family, friends and former teammates. Edwards played two years of high school in Toronto and often returns to the city to train with Canada’s senior national team.

“It means a lot. It definitely shows Geno and UConn’s commitment to their athletes and also Aaliyah’s importance to Canada,” Marlo Davis, Edwards’ high school coach at Crestwood Preparatory College, said. “She’s always been a great ambassador and representative for Canada wherever she is in the world at any given time. So I think it is great because a lot of people in Canada definitely are followers of her journey and supporting and cheering her on. So for them to get the opportunity to see her live in action with her UConn team is something special not only for her, but the entire country.”

Edwards has developed into one of UConn’s most dominant players throughout her three-plus years in Storrs, including earning Third Team All-America honors last year as a junior.

After being named the 2021 Big East Sixth Woman of the Year as a freshman, Edwards became a constant figure in UConn’s starting lineup the very next year. The 6-foot-3 forward finished second on the team in 2021-22 as a sophomore with 5.1 rebounds per game.

Edwards had a breakout season last year and became a nationally recognized force under the basket. She led UConn with 16.6 points per game and was second with a career-high 9.0 rebounds per game. She was named the 2022 Phil Knight Legacy Most Valuable Player and became the first Husky since Maya Moore in 2010 to have a 20-point, 20-rebound game.

Edwards, who wears purple and gold braids in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, pulled in a handful of accolades last spring including being named the Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player, the Big East Most Improved Player and earning her first career All-America honors.

“She’s always been a very confident young lady and I think over the last year or so you can start to see it come out more,” Davis said. “And that confidence really just stems from the work and knowing that she’s prepared herself for any and every situation.”

Not only does Edwards look forward to seeing a crowd full of familiar faces this week, but she hopes Wednesday’s game continues to grow women’s basketball in Canada just like Nurse’s senior homecoming did back in 2017.

“Growing up when you think of UConn and Canada you also thought of Kia Nurse,” Edwards said. “She was really the highlight to kind of help spread the name and spread the competitiveness, the elite-ness and the standard that’s here at UConn. … I think it’s just a ripple effect and I just hope to continue in those footsteps.”

Edwards has represented Canada at both the Olympic and top youth levels. She was on the country’s U17 FIBA World Cup and U16 FIBA Americans teams, along with the U23 Global Jam in 2022. Most recently, she played for Team Canada in the 2023 FIBA AmeriCup where she led the team to a bronze medal, averaging 10.0 points and 8.0 rebounds.

She made her Olympic debut at age 19 as the youngest player on Canada’s women’s basketball roster at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Current TMU head coach Carly Clarke was an assistant coach on Canada’s Olympic squad during the 2020 games, helping to coach Edwards on the sport’s biggest stage (Canada finished ninth).

“Women’s basketball is really on the map in Canada, and I think, you know, for my teammates to kind of witness that and you know, the Americans up here to witness that when they watch the game, it’s just gonna be good,” Edwards said. “And I think it’s just, worlds are colliding and it’s just a good day to play basketball.”

This season, Edwards is once again UConn’s most dependable big. The Huskies have developed a four-guard lineup due to its depleted front court because of injuries (both Jana El Alfy and Ayanna Patterson are out for the year), yet Edwards has only continued to thrive.

Edwards is currently second on UConn with 16.6 points per game but leads the Huskies with a 58.2 field goal percentage and 7.6 rebounds per game.

“Personally, I think that I’m just happy with how I’m adjusting to whatever is thrown at me,” she said. “I think that throughout the last couple of games, there’s been a lot of different schemes, like defensively how to guard me, and I’ve had to focus on ways to adjust how I’m going to attack offensively. And then also on the defensive end, I had some big matchups that I had to guard.

“So, I’ve been working in the gym with coach and the rest of the coaching staff on how I can just continue to improve whatever they need of me and whatever the team needs of me each and every game. I think I’m just watching a lot of film, being more cautious of what I’m doing and making decisions with intentions.”

Wednesday’s game was initially supposed to be against Pittsburgh. However, after the Panthers went through a coaching change this spring, the game was called off, forcing Auriemma to find another opponent last minute.

While the game against TMU won’t count toward UConn’s NET ranking (game stats will still count in the Huskies’ overall season record), the Bold (10-0) will be a competitive matchup for the Huskies after winning the 2022 U Sports Championship (Canada’s governing body for university-level athletics).

On Wednesday at Mattamy Athletic Centre, it’ll be Edwards out on the court playing live and celebrated by her home crowd while younger girls in the stands look up to her with big dreams of their own.

“It’s gonna be a surreal moment because, like, you know, same gym, same environment (as Nurse’s homecoming), but I’m actually on the court instead of being a spectator and just watching,” she said. “I think it’s gonna be nice just to play with my teammates on home soil and just to be in that type of atmosphere.”…Read more by Maggie Vanoni, Staff writer

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