Canada’s Aaliyah Edwards looks to build on breakout season by winning NCAA title
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Despite a career season flush with recognition, Aaliyah Edwards is looking for more than accolades — she wants the NCAA title that eluded her last season.
UConn’s breakout star forward averaged career highs of 16.6 points and 9.2 rebounds this season while leading the Huskies to a Big East tournament title.
Edwards has already been named Big East Most Improved Player, a unanimous choice for all-Big East first team honours, one of five finalists for the Katrina McClain Award for best power forward and a semifinalist for Naismith Player of the Year.
But last season’s national title loss to South Carolina still sits with the native of Kingston, Ont.
“Coming off of last season where we made it to that national championship game, but we weren’t able to get that trophy, I feel unfulfilled,” Edwards told The Canadian Press. “The competitor in me is telling me that I need to finish it a different way (than) how I finished last season.
“I’m trying to prove that I can make it back there and as a team we can accomplish what we have envisioned for the last two years.”
The recognition, however, has been “humbling” for the six-foot-three Edwards.
“I think that my main focus is really a lot of our team goals — win the regular season, win the Big East championship and then win the national championship,” she said.
“To be recognized with these type of accolades where all these elite players have won or have chased after, it’s amazing to be honoured in that type of league and it’s a lot of pride as well because it just speaks to how far I’ve come as an elite player and what I’ve produced for this season.”
The Huskies enter the tournament as the second seed in the Seattle 3 Region and open against Vermont on Saturday. UConn finished the season ranked sixth in the final AP Top 25 rankings with a 29-5 overall record.
Although they’ve managed, the Huskies have dealt with a slew of injuries, including a broken nose and an ankle/foot injury sustained by Edwards.
However, Edwards is just one of two players on the team that’s played in every game this season — while also playing a career-high 33.5 minutes per game.
“It’s a lot to manage, for sure, but through this journey — my friends, my family, my teammates, my coaches, they just helped keep me going,” Edwards said. “Everyone’s banged up. I’m banged up, I have bruises, little sorenesses and stuff like that.
“You really have to reach outside, (something) greater than yourself if you want to accomplish something. It’s the fourth quarter of our season right now and everyone’s in the same boat. Everyone has challenges, stuff they’re facing physically and mentally, but it’s really about what you’re willing to do to take that next step and be competitive and (bring) that relentless approach into every game.”
Edwards averaged 7.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 24.9 minutes per game last season, following a freshman year where she held averages of 10.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 21.8 minutes per game.
Before this season, Edwards had three career double-doubles, all in her freshman year. She’s had 14 this season.
The rise in her game has come in a few ways, with her work in the off-season paying dividends.
“She’s responded to the point where she’s been MVP in every tournament that we’ve played in this year,” said Huskies assistant coach Jamelle Elliott. “(She’s) showing on the floor, when it’s time to play games, the work that she put in the pre-season and the summer (gives) her the confidence that she’s playing right now on the basketball court.
“I think the difference in her from last year to this year is that she’s been able to consistently score points, rebound the ball and guard the other team’s best player. But on top of that, she’s also gained the ability to knock down the 15-foot jump shot on a more consistent basis.”
Edwards’s mental fortitude has also gone a long way in leading the Huskies, Elliot says.
“We’ve been through a lot this season adversity-wise,” Elliott said. “She shows up at practice — in the game, she’s expected to guard the other team’s best player while putting up a double-double for us.
“That takes a person and a player that has some strength (and) that’s mentally able to be sustainable and consistent throughout the year. And that just goes to show you how mentally tough she is.”
With another opportunity ahead to win it all, Edwards doesn’t think she has anything to prove individually.
“It’s more about proving it to ourselves,” Edwards said. “The journey that we’ve had this season is something that you may look at it, when we first started this season, it was like no way we could be where we are today.
“It just speaks to our character and what we’re willing to do to win. And I think that this is kind of our push to be like, ‘Yeah, we’re proving ourselves worthy that we’re still top competitors and we’re still contenders for that national championship.'”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2023.