UConn's Aaliyah Edwards finds inspiration among Husky greats

STORRS, Conn. — If Gampel Pavilion teems with legacy, the adjacent Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center overflows. Beyond the entrance adorned with glass-encased hardware, Aaliyah Edwards sits beside a court framed by banners celebrating first-team All-Americans, Olympic gold medalists, national players of the year and NCAA national championships.

Edwards, in a black crewneck, sweatpants and Nikes, sits on a padded chair from one of UConn’s Final Four appearances. She wears silver-link and crucifix necklaces, her purple and gold braids down. The 6-foot-3 senior forward has practically lived beneath these banners, the names Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters and Tina Charles among the greats reminding her of not only what is possible but, perhaps, expected.

“What I’ve faced here,” Edwards says, “it’s not for the weak.”

It’s an unprecedented amount of success in one place, and the legacies have loomed especially large this season. The UConn women have not raised a national championship banner since 2016, and there was optimism entering the season about what a full and healthy UConn roster could achieve. But that outlook was quickly dashed.

Since the fall, UConn has lost five players for the season. Jana El Alfy tore her Achilles. Azzi Fudd went down with a torn ACL and meniscus. Ayanna Patterson had patellar tendinitis surgery. Aubrey Griffin tore an ACL, and most recently, Caroline Ducharme’s head and neck injuries ended her season early. The departures have meant more minutes for freshmen KK Arnold, Ashlynn Shade and Ice Brady — and more attention on Edwards.

Edwards is embracing this moment, welcoming the challenge. After Wednesday night’s 67-34 victory against Seton Hall — making coach Geno Auriemma the third college basketball coach, men’s or women’s, to reach 1,200 wins — Edwards was the last Husky remaining on the court at the XL Center in Hartford. She tossed tiny foam basketballs into the crowd, hitting her mom, Jackie, nearly 10 rows from the court perfectly in her hands. She posed for photos with young fans and took selfies with peace signs aloft. She even apologized to girls from a local youth basketball team because she didn’t have more time.

She’s averaging 17.7 points and 8.8 rebounds this season — and is on a notable hot streak the past four outings, pouring in an average of 24 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. She had a career-high 33 points plus 13 rebounds against St. John’s and is fresh off a Big East Player of the Week nod.

Sunday will be yet another moment of measure for Edwards, whom teammate Paige Bueckers calls the Huskies’ “anchor.” No. 11 UConn visits No. 1 South Carolina (2 p.m. ET on ESPN), where they’ll face an undefeated Gamecocks team without top scorer and dominant low-post presence Kamilla Cardoso, a 6-foot-7 senior who will miss the game while she’s with the Brazilian national team for an Olympic qualifying event.

“I want to be one of the best, ever since I was younger,” Edwards says. “That’s the competitive spirit in me. To be surrounded by greatness in this gym each and every day is amazing, but you can’t apologize for doing good things. To be recognized, be among hall of famers, it’s a blessing I’m very grateful for.”

AALIYAH EDWARDS WASN’T called generational, despite debuting for Canada’s senior national team at age 16, nor did her college commitment stop U.S. sports media in its tracks. She acknowledged she didn’t realize UConn was interested the first time she spoke with Auriemma. Despite 74 scholarship offers, UConn was her only official visit. She committed before leaving campus.

She’d grown up on Lake Ontario in Kingston, Canada. Her brothers were obsessed with basketball and Kobe Bryant. Older brother Jermaine and her mother coached her on the youth circuit for the Kingston Impact. Edwards and Jermaine would play one-on-one for hours at the nearby Royal Military Academy.

“Our workouts were so intense,” Edwards says. “I’d be 10 doing stuff a 13-year-old should be. I [was] using a medicine ball at 8. This day and age you’ll see it, but back then it was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m not a guy, why are you trying to train me like one?’ Off the court, he’s my big brother. We step on, he’s my coach.”

Jermaine, then more than a decade older than Aaliyah, was a forward for St. Lawrence College in Kingston with Aaliyah’s other brother, Jahmal. Jermaine was the team’s rookie of the year and team MVP in consecutive seasons. But his biggest project was Aaliyah. After those intense training sessions, they’d grab ice cream, maybe watch a movie.

“Or watch Kobe film,” Edwards says. “We’d do stuff that would take my mind off basketball, a reward for putting in the work, [so it’s not] 24/8 — sorry, 24/7. Got 24 and 8 in my head.”

Edwards led Frontenac Secondary School to city, regional and provincial titles.

Marlo Davis, the director of men’s and women’s basketball at Crestwood Preparatory College in Toronto and Edwards’ high school coach, says he saw her play at a tournament at their school and suggested inviting Edwards to an all-star game.

“I got the opportunity to coach her,” Davis says. “The story that Jackie tells is that as soon as they got in the car, [Aaliyah’s dad, Stanford] said, ‘We found the coach for her.'”

Leaving Kingston to move in with a host family for her junior and senior years in Toronto meant a “tough conversation” with her parents.

“Three hours away when you’re 14, 15, is not a good thing,” she says. “I lived with teammates, I would FaceTime my parents a lot. It was tough being kinda alone at first, but I played with my provincial team, and we were gone for a month for training camps, so I was used to being able to adapt. I built my own family.”

Davis says it was clear immediately she was special.

“She’s just a professional in everything she did,” he says. “She’d come in every morning at 7 and school started at 8:45. She’d be in the cafeteria with purple headphones, doing schoolwork, taking care of business. She’d be cheering on 12-year-olds in gym class, get stretching started a half hour before practice. She forced everyone, including me, to step up to another level.”

In early 2016, Crestwood didn’t even have a girls’ program. By 2020, Edwards had led them to back-to-back conference and provincial titles, being named the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association’s MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. They lost one game in her two seasons.

Davis fondly remembers that first championship final, trailing by 15 points at halftime and coming back behind Edwards, who was fouled late in the game.

“She’s going to the line, she came over and I said, ‘This is the moment your brother prepared you for,'” Davis recalls. “She hits two free throws to win the game. All I could do was just say, ‘Thank you.'”

What some might not know about that first title, in 2019, is that Edwards and her family had mourned the loss of Jermaine, who died suddenly at 27 almost two years prior — what Aaliyah Edwards told the Connecticut Post in 2021 was a heart issue.

“They shared something really special around basketball,” Davis says. “People think her hair is about Kobe, but it’s also about her love for her brother. As she started to ascend, that’s something she wanted to share with him. She did, in her own way.”

They’re her trademark now, Edwards’ braids that fall about her shoulders, a dazzling mélange of purple and gold she has had since eighth grade. They initially were a nod to Bryant, but in 2020, after he died in a helicopter crash, the braids became a tribute, to not only him but her brother, her first and most beloved coach.

Edwards still points to the sky after made free throws, a nod to Jermaine.

“I credit my competitive nature to him,” Edwards says. “He was older than me, stronger than me, but I still would play to win.”

His obituary included a photo montage, snapshots of Aaliyah’s progression — bruising one-on-ones and all.

“He’d be proud of me getting it done down low and in high post areas,” she says. “But he’d want me to work more on my left hand.”

She laughs: “It’s slackin’ a bit.”

THE AALIYAH EDWARDS who arrived on UConn’s campus in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic as a freshman in 2020 might not have been so bold as to subvert Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma’s wishes.

But she’s 21 now, a senior, and days before he could reach 1,200 wins, there’s talk of a celebration.

Auriemma doesn’t want one. When he realizes he’s only two away from the mark, he’s incredulous.

“That’s just how he is,” Edwards says. “He’s just focused on what we have left to do … but we’re going to celebrate. We let him know we appreciate him and we’re going to celebrate him.”

Auriemma has leaned on Edwards this season even more because of all the injuries on his team.

“I’d like to see how many other big kids around the country have the responsibility that Aaliyah has on our team given who we’re missing,” Auriemma told the Hartford Courant. “What she’s doing is even more impressive, because if we had three other post players we could rotate, she’d get a breather here and there. But she doesn’t get to do that, and that’s why I think she’s deserving of being an All-American.”

Those close to her admire how Edwards has bloomed on and off the court. There’s a reason she’s 52 boards from breaking into UConn’s top-10 career rebounds list.

“She struggled early, trying to figure out a way,” says Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a former UConn forward who now plays for the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun. “A lot of players quit, transfer, give up on themselves, but she’s been consistently trying to improve and get better. It shows and the spot she’s in, there was no doubt she was going to be here.”

Here, meaning working each day alongside that hovering legacy in Gampel and Werth.

“It’s always in your thoughts,” says Nelson-Ododa. “There’s definitely that pressure and, for a lot of players, that’s hard to play around.”

Lou Lopez-Senechal, who currently plays for Hozono Global Jairis in Spain and the WNBA’s Dallas Wings, transferred to UConn after four seasons at Fairfield University. She was born in Mexico, raised in France, played at an academy in Ireland and was three-time first-team All-MAAC at Fairfield before going to Storrs. And yet…

“I was very intimidated by it when I did my visit,” Lopez-Senechal says. “All those pictures of the older players, you see how much they’ve accomplished, all the championships, the dates when you walk around. There’s always been that pressure with UConn — but [also] that challenge.”

Kia Nurse, a fellow Canadian, UConn alumna and Los Angeles Sparks guard, says Edwards’ confidence has grown from when she first arrived in Storrs.

“Knowing her before she got there, she was always going to do the little things right, even if they didn’t show up on the stat sheet, she was going to impact winning,” Nurse says. “But I think her confidence has grown and that’s really translated in her game. You can see it on the court, her assertiveness especially at the post presence, which is what UConn has really needed over this last couple of years.”

The national championship game her sophomore season against South Carolina, for example, still eats at Edwards. She was 4-9 from the floor and managed only two rebounds. She was far from the only Husky outmuscled in the paint, though. UConn allowed 21 offensive rebounds, 49 total, to Aaliyah Boston and company. Edwards felt she was one-dimensional and needed to develop a reliable perimeter shot — so she worked on that. She still shoots around the world from the top of the key before every game.

“I felt like I wasn’t there for my team,” Edwards says about that game. “The opponent took away the only thing I was good at — being able to finish around the rim — [so] I got into the gym that summer and made sure to expand my game.”

THOUGH SHE SOMETIMES seems to disappear from the action or runs out of gas late — she had 23 points through three quarters in the loss to Notre Dame, but no shot attempts in the fourth — Edwards is perhaps Auriemma’s most consistent and arguably most pro-ready Husky, though she still calls herself a “two-level player.”

“We’re making our way up to the three,” she says.

No one who knows her — from Ontario to Storrs — is surprised.

Davis says that has just always been who she is: What’s next?

“When she got to Storrs, Big East Sixth Woman of the Year; ‘OK, cool, what’s next?'” Davis says. “‘OK, All-American, what’s next?’ Now it’s she wants to improve her jump shot, she wants to handle the ball a bit more, wants to eventually step out and shoot the three.”

Edwards was the youngest member of Team Canada at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and has her sights on the Paris Games this summer.

“I want to be a two-time Olympian,” she says. “[That’s] another motivator, to show up not only for my school and this program, but for my country, playing for something bigger than yourself. I try to challenge myself every day because, you know, after school, after college … life is challenging. Something’s going to be thrown at you every day.”

Edwards, like Bueckers, still has college eligibility after the 2023-24 season, so her days in Storrs could continue. She isn’t saying yet whether she’ll return to UConn or declare for the WNBA draft, which is April 15. She says UConn has taught her how to “embrace being a pro.” She has been projected as a top-10 pick, but says she still wants to hang a few banners of her own. She has faith — which wasn’t always the case.

“With my brother passing away, I really lost that connection.” Edwards says. “I was like, ‘What do I do from here?’ ‘Why did this happen?’ [But] God has a pathway for us and he’s going to challenge us. My teammates, we’re pretty faith-driven, we go to Bible study together, church.”

Jermaine would have been 35 this coming Feb. 17. Edwards says she knows whether her time at UConn continues or she jumps to the pros, national title or not, he’ll be watching.

“Every time I play, I’m playing for my family, I’m playing for him,” she says.

Edwards waits a beat and smiles.

“I feel like he’d be very proud,” she says. “But not satisfied.”

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