Why Canadian NCAA hoops star Aaliyah Edwards is unafraid of the moment

Connecticut forward Aaliyah Edwards reacts with teammates after a basket and foul against Xavier on Dec. 19, 2020. (David Butler II/Pool Photo via AP)

When Aaliyah Edwards first stepped onto the UConn campus in Storrs, Conn., she easily could’ve been intimidated by the school’s women’s basketball legacy (a record 11 national championships), her teammates (junior Olivia Nelson-Ododa was an honourable-mention All-American last season), or university life in general.

But she wasn’t.

That’s because the 18-year-old had already played 14 games with her national team’s roster in Canada, hanging out with WNBA stars like Kia Nurse and making a name for herself before ever putting on the Huskies’ colours.

Growing up as a coach’s kid in Kingston, Ont., Edwards always had to work harder than her teammates to prove herself, with her mom and brother sharing duties of teaching the game to a 12-year-old Edwards.

“My first two years, my mom and my older brother Jermaine were my coaches. Obviously, having them there could be frustrating. There would be days I would want ‘mom,’ but she was ‘Coach,’” said Edwards. “(But) the importance of that experience is that it really built the foundation of who I am as a player and as a person because all those challenges I had to face were beneficial for me in what I do today.”

Playing for her hometown club team, the Kingston Impact, Edwards made the U15 Canadian national team at the age of 14 — participating in national competitions every year since.

In 2019, she averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds at the U19 FIBA World Cup in Thailand as the youngest player on the Canadian roster. That same year, she was invited to play with the Senior National Team for the first time, going on to suit up for the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup and the Olympic Pre-Qualifying Americas Tournament.

“At first it was kind of intimidating. I’m playing with pros and people who are way older than me, (and) I was the youngest on the team, but at the same time it was a great opportunity for me to have a lot of mentors,” Edwards said.

Edwards goes up for a layup during the 2019 FIBA Women’s Olympic Pre-Qualifying Americas Tournament in Edmonton, Alta. (Jason Franson/CP)

Along the way, she was named 2019 NBA Basketball Without Borders Global MVP, and 2020 BioSteel Athlete of the Year, OSBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year.

And after starring in high school and establishing herself with some of Team Canada’s youth teams, Edwards took the next step on her basketball journey with the powerful Huskies program.

“If you’re a women’s basketball player, you know that UConn is a dominant program,” said Edwards. “My goals and my decision why I came here was because of the coaching staff, how professional the players are, how well they play and how they carry themselves — knowing that I’ll be in that atmosphere that can help me develop into the pro I want to be.”

Since the start of her 2020–21 freshman season, Edwards has been a true standout. With season highs of 24 points and 14 rebounds versus Butler this past weekend, and averaging 10.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, the six-foot-three forward has been a difference maker for UConn, both as a starter and coming off the bench.

“Since she’s been here, she’s been everything I expected,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma. “We played the No. 1 team in the country, South Carolina, on national television, and she was out there acting like, ‘I do this all the time.’”

And despite UConn being one of the younger squads this season, the team has found their path to success easily. Auriemma has led the program to an 18-1 record and the No. 1 ranking in the current Associated Press poll, looking to win the school’s first title in five years.

According to Auriemma, at this early stage of her collegiate career, Edwards’ biggest opponent might be herself.

“She gets in her own way sometimes — she overthinks things and wants it to be just right,” Auriemma said. “I think as she just plays more, she just gets better and better all the time.”

Alongside Edwards in UConn’s star-studded freshman class is Paige Bueckers, who was the 2020 Gatorade National Player of the Year and is currently averaging 20 points per game for the Huskies. Edwards sees a great opportunity for the pair to grow together.

“One of the reasons why I wanted to come up here is because basketball is a team sport,” she said. “Paige is a great leader, and the reason why we play so well together is because we’re like-minded. She has that competitive drive and spirit and that winning mentality, and I view myself as a similar player as her in terms of mindset.”

With only four Canadian athletes playing in the WNBA during the 2020 season, Edwards could be one of the next big names to break through to the pro game, following in the same footsteps as Nurse before her at both UConn and for the Canadian national team. But in the near term, there’s her first NCAA Tournament coming up this month, and then possibly an Olympic tournament this summer if the Games can go on.

Of course, for Edwards, playing on those stages and coming home with medals and accolades is only part of her role — and part of the goal.

“I’m glad that I’m becoming a role model for the next generation of women’s basketball in Canada,” Edwards said. “With the Canadians in the NCAA and the WNBA making a name for themselves, it impacts the game on and off the court — talking about women in sport and diversity, making an impact by being mentors and role models to the next generation.”

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