UConn women’s basketball’s 2021-22 season unofficially began in June when it reconvened on campus for summer workouts. The returners came back to Storrs for the first time since the season ended to Arizona in the Final Four while the newcomers got an introduction to the school and program.
There was one notable absence, though: Aaliyah Edwards. The sophomore was instead with the Canadian national team as they prepared for the 2021 AmeriCup tournament. Geno Auriemma couldn’t have been happier to be without one of his players — especially someone like Edwards who figured to be a major factor after a strong freshman year.
“I hope she’s not around all of July either because she’s in Tokyo,” Auriemma said.
Edwards did in fact make the Canadian Olympic team and traveled to Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics this past summer. While she didn’t play much in the tournament, spending a summer with the national team provided Edwards with a significant learning experience that seemed likely to help transform her into a star as a sophomore.
That’s not what happened, though. In fact, the opposite seemed to occur. When the season began, Edwards had significantly regressed from the level that she showed during the NCAA Tournament.
Through her first four games, she didn’t total more than nine points and was even held scoreless in a win over USF. She wasn’t hitting the boards as much either as she averaged just 3.8 rebounds per game during that span. Most of all, Edwards didn’t pass the eye test. While her best play as a freshman came when she was being aggressive, physical and tough in the lane, Edwards was mostly invisible on the court.
She bounced back with a solid 10-point, seven-rebound effort at Seton Hall and looked more like her old self, but then failed to grab a rebound in the win over Notre Dame.
For a while, that’s how much of Edwards’ sophomore season went. She’d flash a good performance every now and then but between them, she’d be almost a complete non-factor.
“I knew that my teammates needed more from me,” she said.
The breakout finally came in early February. UConn hosted Tennessee in a non-conference matchup that was crucial to the Huskies’ NCAA Tournament resume. In order to have any hope of securing a 2-seed, they needed to beat the Vols.
It wouldn’t be easy, though. UConn was already down Caroline Ducharme — who was the team’s leading scorer since Paige Bueckers’ injury at that point — while Dorka Juhász was set to return, albeit on a minute limit, from a foot issue that kept her out of the previous two games.
Azzi Fudd took over with a 25-point effort but Edwards dominated down low, scoring 14 points to go with a team-high seven rebounds. Most importantly, she played like her old self with a bruising effort in the paint. Finally, she felt like she was back.
“I just had a mindset shift,” Edwards said.
Two games later, she had 19 points and six rebounds against national freshman of the year Aneesah Morrow and DePaul. After the Tennessee game, Edwards’ line jumped from 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game with a 48.6% field goal percentage before to 9.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and a 55.8% field goal percentage since.
Recently, Edwards has taken on a new role. In wins over NC State and Stanford, the sophomore dealt with foul trouble in the first half and didn’t see many minutes as a result. But in each contest, she’s come alive late and made crucial plays to help UConn get the win.
In the Elite Eight, Edwards totaled just four points and four rebounds — all of which were defensive — through regulation. But in the two overtime periods, she racked up six points and came up with them at key moments. In the first OT, Edwards scored a layup that put UConn up by three with 47 seconds left. In the second, she made two key free throws that extended the Huskies’ lead to five and then answered an NC State 3-pointer with a basket of her own to keep it a two-possession game.
The Final Four followed a similar script. Edwards only played eight minutes in the first half and only had two points — though she had a team-best +4. She added another two points in the third quarter but came alive in the fourth. Despite only seeing four minutes of action in the final period, Edwards had five points and also grabbed two huge rebounds — one on defense and the other on the offensive end.
Both times, she came alive in the fourth quarter to lift the Huskies to victory. In her mind, Edwards is just honoring her idol, Kobe Bryant.
“I grew up watching Kobe, mirroring his game and he’s a clutch player,” she said. “Fourth quarters were when he thrived and that’s just how I look at myself as a player. I’m relentless. When the time comes, when you need me to make a big play, I’ll make a big play.”
For the last two games, that’s exactly what Edwards has done. At this point in the season, star power can only carry a team so far. In order to win in the Final Four — and the national championship — the role players need to step up. Evina Westbrook did that by making three 3-pointers in the first half against Stanford, as did Nika Mühl with a career-high eight rebounds.
Right now, Edwards is still only a role player — one who excels at being a tough, physical presence in the paint and now a fourth quarter closer, but still a role player. But if she can take the level she’s been at in the final minute of the last two games and play like that from start-to-finish in the national championship against South Carolina, UConn will more than likely be raising another trophy at the end of the night.
“Aaliyah has the ability to change games. Aaliyah just hasn’t been able to put it together consistently,” Auriemma said. “When that time comes — hopefully soon rather than later — she has the ability to change games.”