Canadians Abroad Roundup: Aaliyah Edwards playing must-see basketball for UConn

UConn's Aaliyah Edwards grabs the ball during the first half of a college basketball game in the semifinal round of the Women's Final Four NCAA tournament Friday, April 1, 2022, in Minneapolis. (Eric Gay/AP)

Aaliyah Edwards is putting Canada on the basketball map. 

The 20-year-old Kingston, Ont., native is dominating NCAA basketball this season as a member of the storied University of Connecticut Huskies, averaging 17.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 blocks per game on 63.0 percent shooting.

The 6-foot-3 junior has been the best Canadian woman in college basketball this season and ESPN’s 14th-best player overall, lifting the Huskies to a 9-2 record and No. 9 seed in the country despite a slew of injuries and a tough sled of highly ranked opponents. 

Edwards is doing it her way, by playing to her strengths and becoming unstoppable at the things she has excelled at since she started playing competitive basketball in Grade 6. She works primarily from the post and the block, where she has become unstoppable by developing counters to everything the defence throws at her. Sag off Edwards, and she will face-up and hit a 15-foot jump-shot. Play up on her, and she will drive straight to the hoop. And don’t let her get deep positioning in the post, because that’s where her elite footwork and touch are most lethal.

Although Edwards is not eligible to turn pro until 2024, her performance this season is garnering attention around the world, putting Canadian women’s basketball on the map.

We caught up with Edwards ahead of her holiday break to talk about her experience winning MVP at the inaugural GLOBL JAM tournament in the summer, stepping into a role as a leader and primary option at UConn, chasing a national championship, her admiration for Kobe Bryant and more. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Oren Weisfeld: First of all, congratulations on a great start to the season. After winning the tournament MVP and gold medal at the GLOBL JAM tournament this summer, did you come into the UConn season with added confidence? 

Aaliyah Edwards: Absolutely. I think that everything that I got to experience at GLOBL JAM definitely translates into my confidence and my leadership role here with UConn. I have been playing with the Canadian senior women’s team for two years now, so playing with people my age gave me a different perspective of how to be a leader, how to stay composed and how to play on such a talented team. Plus, after playing more of a versatile role with the GLOBL JAM team, where I was a three-four hybrid, it helped me develop my guard skills, and now at UConn I am a more versatile player and better offensive threat.

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OW: Is this your first year being a real leader on the UConn team? Or have you always been that way? 

AE: As a freshman, you just listen to what the upperclassmen tell you. But I think last year, that’s kind of where I got a bit of limelight in terms of being a leader and stepping up for the team because we had to face a lot of adversity last year due to injuries, and I was one of the only players available all season. So, I did have a bit of a leadership role in terms of just being dependable and just being the next player up. But this year, being an upperclassmen, my role has changed and now the freshmen and sophomores are looking towards me for some guidance, and I’m doing anything I can to help my teammates and help my coaches win the games and be successful.

OW: What qualities make a good leader? And have you learned some of those qualities from the women you have played with on the Canadian senior team? 

AE: Absolutely. I took a lot from Miranda Ayim. Her leadership on the senior national team as their flag bearer at the Tokyo Olympics. I think that being under her wing and soaking up everything that she did for the team, how she really embodied playing for Canada Basketball and that passion and pride that comes with it. I think that I’ve learned so much from her that I’ve been able to put into UConn and kind of inject into our identity now with that pride and passion of who you’re playing for, not just the name on the back of your jersey, but the name from across your chest, too. 

I also learned about taking accountability from Ayim. There’s going to be times where, for example, in practice somebody messes up and sometimes you just gotta tell coach, “My bad,” and take the yelling from coach for the freshmen. But then help the freshmen out too, so that next time they learn from their mistakes. So, I would definitely say I’ve learned about accountability and pride and passion from her. And also Kia Nurse, Natalie Achonwa and Bridgette Carleton have all played big roles for me as leaders as well.

OW: Let’s talk a bit about this season, your third at UConn. You have been thrust into a primary role due in part to injuries to star Azzi Fudd and Dorka Juhász. How are you embracing having that much responsibility on your shoulders?

AE: I’m enjoying how we started off this season a lot. Unfortunately, we do have a lot of injuries and some adversity that we’re facing right now. But I think, individually, I’m just doing whatever my team and my coaches need me to do to get the dub at the end of the day. 

I have been really tested leadership-wise this season. And also in my versatility, playing multiple positions and bringing up the ball on some possessions, which I was not necessarily used to doing, but I really just have had to step into those roles with confidence. And I think that, offensively, I’ve really been in my bag and it started in practice where I’ve been focusing on how I’m moving, especially down low in the post, doing my work early so that I can just get the ball inside and finish. And then another big improvement for me this year is becoming a threat outside of the post. I think that’s what I wasn’t great at last year. So, in the summer and whenever I can get into the gym, I’ve just been working on my skills operating from the high posts and the three-point line and being a versatile player that I know I can be for the team.

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OW: You mean mostly improving your jump shot or also your decision-making from those areas outside of the post? 

AE: Shooting. Decisions as well. Different teams scout me differently now, but last year most teams would sag off of me. So, me being able to consistently hit that 15-footer has been effective for me this season. I just go into the gym and put up lots and lots of shots and practice making those shots. And then also I got the drive by if they come up and play up on me. So, I think just adding more to what I can do as an offensive threat has been a big adjustment for me and a big area of growth for me. And then defensively, it starts there because me being relentless in my approach and not letting my player score on me is really what’s helped the momentum for our two-way approach.

OW: Who is your favourite player to study and watch and maybe take some stuff from their game?

AE: My favourite player is Kobe. So, before every game during my gameday routine, I study and watch Kobe videos. It’s not always just highlights. It could be clips of games, or even just clips of how he analyzes the game mentally, like how he used to meditate to prepare for his games. And Kobe was my brother’s favourite player as well. I think that we really connected on that growing up. We’d always be watching his videos, watching his games. And we really loved not only how great of a player he was, but his mindset. And that’s really how I shaped my game off: Basketball is not just a physical game but it’s also a mental game, too.

In the WNBA, I would definitely say Candice Parker. I like how she plays and that she’s a versatile player. I would also say Kia Nurse with the guard skills. I think that she has great movement without the ball, and that’s what I have to do a lot of the time to create opportunities not only for myself but for my teammates, too. Also Natalie Achonwa, who plays a similar position as me. I like that she’s not only looking to better herself individually but as a team collectively. So, as she moves, she’s moving not only to get herself open but also to help the offence flow better. I definitely watch all those players and try to replicate their consistency.

OW: You lost in the finals of last year’s March Madness tournament to South Carolina and fellow Canadian Laeticia Amihere. And UConn hasn’t won a title since 2016 after winning four straight between 2013-16. How important is it for you to win one before you leave college?

AE: I think that’s the goal of any athlete who’s playing Division 1 NCAA basketball. I think that your expectation coming into such an elite pool of athletes is to be the best player and to be the best team and to bring home the national championship in order to seal everything that you’ve worked on throughout the year. 

So, being in that position to kind of grasp that trophy last year was amazing, but the fact that we didn’t win, the feeling was deflating. And as a competitor myself, you never want to be second best because you expect more of yourself and of your team. So, that one hit me hard, for sure. But all you can really do is just learn from your mistakes and not let that happen again. So, the goal right now in the mindset of our team is to compete for the Big East championship. And then from there, we’re going to compete for the national championship this year and I think we’re looking good. We’re looking strong.

OW: And plus, there must be a part of you that wants to get back at Amihere and South Carolina, right? 

AE: For sure. For her to stop rubbing it in my face. Yes, definitely. Because whenever we connect with the national team, she always needs to bring it up. I got two more years left at college, so we’ll see what happens.

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