If Aaliyah Edwards played for any other team, she’d probably be up there with Iowa’s Caitlin Clark in the debate for the best freshman in the country. Instead, by playing alongside Paige Bueckers and Olivia Nelson-Ododa on a loaded UConn women’s basketball squad, Edwards has thrived in her role off the bench while missing out on the national spotlight.
The Big East Sixth Woman of the Year and the nation’s leader in field goal percentage (69.6 percent), Edwards has been one of the Huskies’ best players in the NCAA Tournament so far.
In her debut, Edwards recorded her third double-double of the season with 17 points and 12 boards in just 25 minutes of action. Six of those rebounds came on the offensive glass, where she collected over 28 percent of UConn’s missed shots while on the court. Her performance stretches beyond what shows up on the box score, as well.
“She sets really good screens for me — and for the rest of our team — to get other people open,” Bueckers said after Sunday’s game. “Her selfless attitude about the game — I mean, she does everything for this team and she has a really good mindset about it. She’s willing to do everything to win. She’s definitely our glue person who just does everything.”
While Edwards provides a little bit of everything for UConn, she really excels with her scoring in the paint. In the opener, her 17 points came on 8-10 shooting from the floor with High Point having no answer for her size or physicality inside.
That trend continued into the second-round matchup against Syracuse despite going up against the 6-foot-7 ACC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in Kamilla Cardoso. Edwards went a perfect 5-5 from the floor and earned 7 trips to the free-throw line in just 25 minutes on the floor.
She also only grabbed two offensive boards against the Orange, which means her buckets mostly came in the flow of UConn’s offense. The Huskies ran the ball through her quite a bit in the second round as she finished over a quarter of UConn’s possessions and displayed improved range by knocking down shots from the free-throw line. Syracuse couldn’t find a way to defend her without fouling her, which she capitalized on with a 9-for-12 performance from the charity stripe.
Bueckers’ assessment that Edwards does “everything” was further vindicated by how she helped facilitate UConn’s offense in the win. She totaled four assists, delivering the dime on a third of her teammates’ buckets while on the floor. In fact, Edwards scored or assisted on a third of UConn’s total field goals in the game despite only playing 25 minutes.
Looking ahead to the second weekend, Edwards has her work cut out for her with another strong post player in Iowa’s Monica Czinano. Overall, the Hawkeyes score the second-most points per game in the country, so Edwards’ elite efficiency should help the Huskies keep pace on the offensive end.
Then there’s the potential matchup looming with Baylor in the Elite Eight should both teams advance. The battle in the post will set the tone for who wins that matchup (again, assuming chalk holds in the regional semifinals).
Edwards could be even more important than Nelson-Ododa in that battle. Her physicality which she used to bully High Point — and most of UConn’s Big East opponents this season — is something even the likes of Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith and Queen Egbo might not be able to match.
Through these first two games of the tournament, Bueckers, Nelson-Ododa, and Edwards have all been equally exceptional. You could argue that any of the three have been the Huskies’ best player on the floor.
For UConn to win their 12th national championship, Edwards will need to be the X-factor (or as Bueckers would say, the “glue”) to take them there. And if she can keep this pace up, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for her to be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.