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UConn WBB Weekly: Will Aaliyah Edwards finally make the leap as a junior?

While Edwards development stagnated as a sophomore, she ended last season on a high note.

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Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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Will Aaliyah Edwards finally make the leap as a junior?

Expectations were high for Aaliyah Edwards entering her sophomore year. She played her best basketball during the 2021 NCAA Tournament and then spent the entire summer with the Canadian national team — including a trip to Tokyo for the Olympics. But when the new season began, Edwards was largely invisible.

Through her first four games, Edwards totaled 23 points and 11 rebounds. She didn’t stand out as the physical force in the paint who impacted games without even touching the ball. Edwards was just there, seemingly going through the motions.

That’s how the first half of the season went for the sophomore from Canadian. She’d show signs of life here and there — a 12-point, seven-rebound night at Seton Hall in December; back-to-back 12-point efforts against Creighton and Butler in January — before fading into the background again.

In February, something finally clicked. When Tennessee came to Hartford and UConn unexpectedly found itself without Caroline Ducharme due to injury, Edwards stepped up to the tune of 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds. She bullied the Vols down low and looked like the bull in a china shop that had played a central role in the Huskies’ trip to the Final Four the year before.

“I just had a mindset shift,” Edwards said of her turnaround.

After that, she took off. Between the win over Tennessee on Feb. 6 and the end of the season, Edwards averaged 9.4 points and 6.1 rebounds — including a team-best 2.4 offensive boards — per game and drew 3.2 fouls per contest, second-best on the squad.

In the Elite Eight and Final Four, Edwards established herself as UConn’s late-game closer. In the regional final vs. NC State, she had four points and four rebounds in regulation but made key play after key play in the two overtimes to help the Huskies come away with the win. In the national semifinal, Edwards played just eight minutes in the first half due to foul trouble but came alive in the fourth quarter with five points and two big rebounds in only four minutes.

It felt like every time she touched the ball in those two games, she boosted UConn’s chances of winning — which has epitomized Edwards’ career. Her numbers through two seasons aren’t eye-popping at 9.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, but it’s hard to deny her impact when she’s on her game.

Now, Edwards is entering a crucial junior year. Throughout her first two seasons, she could afford to play a secondary role in the post thanks to the presence of Olivia Nelson-Ododa and later Dorka Juhász. But with Nelson-Ododa gone, Edwards needs to elevate her play and impact games not only night-in and night-out, but from start to finish. She needs to improve because UConn has to be better down low as a team.

“We have to score more in the lane and we have to defend better in the lane,” Geno Auriemma said in June. “We have to be more consistent getting points on the board in the lane, getting the other teams’ big guys in foul trouble and staying out of foul trouble and being good defenders in the lane.”

That’s especially true now that Paige Bueckers is out for the year. The Huskies can’t rely solely on their guards to carry the load while the bigs do just enough. Replacing the superstar will take a full team effort, inside and out.

In order for Edwards to score more, she needs to expand her offensive arsenal. Not only did a significant chunk of her points come from offensive rebounds last year (1.9 of her 7.9 points per game last season were from second chance opportunities), 40.6 percent of her attempts came at the rim while another 29.9 percent were in the paint, according to CBB Analytics. Meanwhile, of the 29.5 percent of Edwards’ shots outside the key, she hit less than 30 percent. Her shot chart shows just how little she scored away from the basket:

As a freshman, Edwards consistently knocked down jumpers from the elbow which helped open the lane for her down the stretch. If she can re-find that shot — and maybe add in a couple 3-pointers here and there to keep defenses honest and stretch the floor — that will not only make life easier for her inside, it’ll free up space for her teammates as well.

None of that will matter if Edwards isn’t on the floor, though. One of her biggest problems through two years has been foul trouble. As a freshman, Edwards averaged 3.9 fouls/40 minutes and improved it to... 3.8 fouls/40 last season. In the 2022 NCAA Tournament, she picked up at least three fouls in every contest and fouled out twice.

It’s one thing to be whistled for hustle plays — especially considering physical style of play. But too often, Edwards commits needless fouls, whether it be barging through defenders, setting obvious illegal screens or throwing opponents out of the way to chase after a ball. If she’s forced to go to the bench for most of the first half because of foul trouble, it changes the way can UConn play and puts more pressure on Juhász or the young bigs like Amari DeBerry, Ice Brady and Ayanna Patterson.

Auriemma often says that junior year is a dividing line in most player’s career. At that point, they either take their game to the next level or their development stagnates. Considering Edwards’ huge potential, it’s hard to imagine her not continuing her upward trajectory.

It helps that her offseason has been more typical compared to last year — instead of being away with the Canadian national team all summer where she only got sparse playing time, she was in Storrs for summer workouts then played with Canada’s U23 team at GLOBL Jam, where she led her team to gold and claimed tournament MVP.

In a world that’s currently ruled by post-heavy South Carolina, Edwards will be crucial to the Huskies’ quest to stay among the elite. Nobody can come close to replacing Bueckers but if Edwards can transform into a legitimate star, that would give UConn something it hasn’t had since Napheesa Collier graduated.

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