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Aaliyah Edwards driven to succeed in Storrs

Aaliyah Edwards hadn’t even completed a single official practice with UConn women’s basketball before she started drawing comparisons to one of the greatest players in program history.

“She’s very versatile. She’s kinda like Phee (Napheesa Collier),” Christyn Williams said back on Oct. 1. “She can play on the outside as well but on the inside is where she flourishes more. She’s very tough. She’s a competitor, so she competes. On the defensive end, she’s very mature for her end. It’s like she’s done this before.”

That’s high praise for anyone, let alone a freshman. Collier finished her career third on UConn’s all-time scoring list with 2,401 points, 10th all-time in games played, seventh in career scoring average, third in field goals made, third in field goal percentage, fourth in rebounds, and seventh in blocks. As a senior, Collier set the school’s single-season record for double-doubles (with 25) and rebounds (411) while finishing with the second-most points in a year (792).

But Williams isn’t alone in noticing shades of Collier in Edwards. Geno Auriemma sees it too – to a certain extent.

“She does have that same competitiveness that Pheesa had,” he said. “She still wants to impact every possession. She plays hard like Pheesa did. She has a motor like Pheesa had. She goes at both ends, offensively, defensively, rebounding the ball, getting to the basket.”

In fact, Edwards will have the opportunity to take on a larger role in her first year than Collier held. As a freshman during the 2015-16 season, Collier sat behind the likes of Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck, and Gabby Williams on the depth chart. Edwards – who was seen working with the bigs in the team’s first practice – will likely be the top option behind Olivia Nelson-Ododa down low.

“I think Aaliyah is going to be in a different situation (than Collier). She’s going to have to play a lot,” Auriemma said. “So she’s going to be thrown into situations that make her grow up fast whereas Pheesa had an opportunity to slide in there.”

Despite more projected playing time early in her UConn career, Auriemma is not counting on Edwards to become a double-double machine like Collier. Though the freshman plays with the same intensity, Edwards still has a long way to go to match Collier’s abilities.

“I don’t know whether or not she has Pheesa’s game,” he said. “...If she can develop her game to develop Pheesa’s game, now we’re on to something.”

Edwards, to her credit, didn’t shy away from the comparison, even though she seemed to have an understanding of the lofty expectations it carried.

“Well, definitely honored because Napheesa is definitely a great player,” Edwards said. “I think I’m definitely a great facilitator in her position that Napheesa was playing and I do aspire to be a similar player that she is. But I'm definitely honored by that comment by Christyn.”

Edwards is also focused on finding her own game. Though she’s working with the bigs, the freshman isn’t a true post player like Nelson-Ododa. While Edwards certainly doesn’t lack the size at 6-foot-3, she’ll bring a different look to UConn’s frontcourt.

“I definitely want to bring a big presence in terms of being that slasher or being that high post player,” she said. “We do have a lot of great posts on the team. I feel like it’d be kind of a mix-up for me to utilize that speed and versatility in that role of slashing and rebounding and also defensively, using my length.”

Edwards’ main contribution is less quantifiable, though. All summer and through the start of official practice, Auriemma has repeatedly praised this team’s competitiveness. He’s credited the newcomers with adding that edge to practice but within that group, it starts with Edwards.

“For me, my strength is really just being a competitor,” she said. “I have that competitive mindset that I feel like cannot only help me as an individual player but also as a team player. Just being relentless, doing the little things, rebounding, going after those loose balls.”

That “competitive mindset” was instilled in Edwards by watching her two favorite players: Candace Parker and Kobe Bryant.

“I definitely like watching Candace Parker because she’s definitely a competitor,” she said. “Not only that, she’s a very versatile player. She’s kind of like inside, she can also play on the perimeter as well, but also just making the right reads around her defender to be successful. So I definitely aspire to be a dominant player like her and also a team player like her.

“My other [favorite player] is the late Kobe Bryant. Ever since I was a little baller on the court, I was definitely looking up to him, watching his game film, and trying to assimilate the same things he would do in the game. His mindset is what I love and aspire to have in the future.”

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Though freshman year is difficult for every player who comes to UConn, Edwards may be as well-prepared as anyone to handle it. She already has experience playing at a high level with 14 caps for the Canadian Senior National Team – most notably in the 2019 FIBA AmeriCup and Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament.

Edwards also has a mentor in former UConn star Kia Nurse. The two played together with Team Canada in the Pre-Olympic Qualifying Tournament and Edwards suited up with Kia Nurse Elite – a team founded by Nurse herself – on the AAU circuit. Edwards shared one piece of advice that Nurse gave her throughout all their conversations.

“Everyone knows Kia Nurse is a competitor,” Edwards relayed. “I think that was really the main message she was trying to tell me was that whether it’s practice, whether it’s in the game, or in the books, you want to do the best at everything you can and make sure that you’re doing the little things as well. Don’t think that you’re going to be perfect at the start, just as you keep working at it, grinding at it, you can be successful.”

One way or another, Edwards will see a lot of action this season. The Huskies simply don’t have anyone with her combination of size, athleticism, and experience behind Nelson-Ododa that can help defensively and on the boards. But at the same time, UConn doesn’t need Edwards to be the second-coming of Collier. If the freshman can just find ways to impact the game – rebounds, defense, or with her athleticism – that’ll be more than enough for the Huskies.

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