Ahead of this season, Aliyah Edwards and his team UConn Huskies set themselves three clear goals: they wanted to win the regular season, win the Big East Tournament and win the national championship.
Two less, one remains.
With the brackets attached for it march madness of the year which begins Friday, Edwards and her Huskies, Big East Conference champions, are aiming for the ultimate prize – a return to the top of the NCAA women’s basketball world.
The team fell to South Carolina (which included fellow Canadians Laeticia Amihere) In last year’s final and is on a revenge mission to reclaim a trophy the Huskies have won a record 11 times.
“We kind of have a chip on our shoulders to prove that we can still do it,” Edwards told The Star earlier this month. “The objective is to win the championship but we cannot skip the stages. It’s one game at a time until we get there.
The Huskies enter the tournament as the No. 2 seed and open against Vermont on Saturday. UConn finished the season ranked sixth in the final AP Top 25 rankings.
A national championship would mean so much to the 20-year-old from Kingston, Ont. native who is in the middle of a career season while carrying the load with a few key players injured.
Edwards won the Big East Conference’s Most Improved Player award, a tribute to her average of 16.6 points (up from 7.9 points last season) and 9.2 rebounds while leading her team to a record from 29-5. She was also named one of five finalists for the Katrina McClain Award as NCAA’s Top Power Forward.
ESPN ranked her eighth of his top 25 players for this year’s March Madness tournament.
The accolades are the result of long hours over the summer, during which Edwards worked to improve his shooting, aiming to improve his offensive versatility while remaining a defensive threat at the same time.
His stellar stat line of 19 points, 15 rebounds and three assists last Monday helped the The Huskies beat the Villanova Wildcats to win this year’s Big East title. She was named the tournament’s best player.
“She’s responded to the point where she’s been the MVP in every tournament we’ve been to this year,” Huskies assistant coach Jamelle Elliott told The Canadian Press. “(She) shows on the court, when it’s time to play, the work she’s done through pre-season and the summer (gives her) the confidence that she’s playing right now on the basketball court .
“I think the difference in her from last year to this year is that she was able to score points consistently, bounce the ball and keep the best player on the other team. But on top of that, she also acquired the ability to knock down the jump shot from 15 feet more consistently.
The individual awards are nice and “humiliating,” but they’ll mean so much more if Edwards and his Huskies are the last team standing.
“It’s the UConn standard that existed before I came here. Repeating that and holding ourselves accountable is what we really cherish,” Edwards said.
Succeeding on the field with the Huskies program is also important to Edwards for a much bigger reason: it’s yet another way to put Canada on the map and show younger generations of women’s hoops that it can be done at the highest level.
Edwards has been part of the Canadian national team for several years, starting with the U16 FIBA Americas and U17 FIBA World Cup teams. She was the youngest member of Team Canada at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and she won gold and the MVP trophy at the 2022 Globl Jam with the U23 team.
“There’s nothing quite like being on the national team,” she said, noting that she had an enlarged photo of herself with her teammates the first time she played on the senior team – a full circle moment for her as she stood next to the likes of Kia Nurse, Bridget Carleton and Natalie Achonwa, players she grew up idolizing.
“Standing on the pitch singing the national anthem, you look up and see the family section, the red and white flag. You are literally connected with your sisters because you are holding hands. It shows the amount of commitment and passion it takes to play for something bigger than yourself.
She looks forward to being with the team next year at Paris Olympic Games.
“I think we’re ready as a group,” she said. “We are making the right choices and taking the right steps to be more committed and more disciplined in our approach. I’m excited.”
Edwards attended Crestwood Prep High School in North York and helped the team win the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association title in 2019.
For a player who grew up loving and revering Kobe Bryant — she often rocks her braids painted purple and gold in her honor — Edwards knows it’s time to channel her inner Mamba mentality as March Madness kicks off this weekend.
“It’s a crucial part of the season,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of this amazing college basketball program.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION