Canadian rookie Edwards shining in a bizarre UConn season unlike any other

·5 min read

Aaliyah Edwards splits her days between the gym and her apartment.

The 18-year-old Canadian is one of six freshmen on a No. 1-ranked University of Connecticut women's basketball team that's seen little else since gathering on the Storrs, Conn., campus last July.

Classes are online, there's no wandering around campus, and so players wear a path back and forth to the gym from their team apartment in a routine coach Geno Auriemma said has turned into "Groundhog Day."

It's not exactly the freshman year Edwards might have drawn up, but resilience is key in a sports world upended by COVID-19.

"Being away from home and having to navigate through that was very difficult for us as her parents," said Aaliyah's mom Jackie Edwards from home in Kingston, Ont.

"But the isolation, that age group is all about socialization, especially when you play a team sport. It's about socializing, it's about that camaraderie, it's about that closeness and shoulder-to-shoulder and high fives. I just commend all of the athletes that continue to do what they do under the circumstances."

Despite positive COVID-19 tests that delayed the start to their season, and shut down their training, the Huskies earned the NCAA's No. 1 ranking with their recent 64-40 win over Georgetown.

Edwards, a six-foot-three forward, has started twice in her 13 Huskies appearances, posting a season-high 22 points plus nine rebounds versus St. John's earlier this month.

"This year has been very different in multiple ways," said Edwards, a communications student. "There's no fans, so we're missing them a lot, there's where a lot of our energy comes from, we have to build our own energy amongst ourselves.

"And college life is different. Can't interact with a lot of students because we're trying to make sure we stay negative (for COVID-19) within our team and our staff. There have been a lot of uncertainties . . . but going into the second half of the season we've been pretty consistent and have a good rhythm with our games."

Hundreds of Canadians are playing NCAA basketball while navigating this bizarre season clouded by the global pandemic.

Edwards was already made of strong stuff. A top triple jumper and hurdler in high school, she made the national cadet basketball team when she was just 14. She tugged on her first Canadian jersey at the U16 FIBA Americas championships in Argentina just four months after the death of her older brother Jermaine. The cause of death has not been made public.

"Not having him there through that experience with me was very overwhelming and disheartening," Edwards said. "I ended up making the team and I was the youngest player.

"But if I could make it through that, anything else that gets thrown at me down the road, I know that I can overcome it. So, now (Jermaine) just lives through me.

"Even with Kobe's death last year, and COVID and all these uncertainties happening in the world, I just kind of reflect back to my personal situation and not taking life for granted, living every day to its fullest and just being more appreciative of life, because it can get taken away from you at any point."

A huge Kobe Bryant fan, Edwards has worn purple and gold braids in her hair since Grade 8. She wears them now both for Bryant and her brother, "because we shared a great passion and love for Kobe, his game and his mindset and everything he lived for."

She also touches a finger to her chest and then points to the ceiling with every free throw she makes, "for my brother. Just like 'I got you Jer.' I know he's with me."

Edwards shone for Canada's senior women's team as a 17-year-old at the FIBA women's AmeriCup in 2019 in Puerto Rico.

"She was the only high school student on the squad, and the commentators were just smitten by her, they said she was fearless. This one lady (commentator) was so excited about Aaliyah . . . and I thought I was a fan," Jackie Edwards said with a laugh.

Edwards also helped Canada to a 3-0 record in the FIBA Americas Olympic pre-qualifying tournament in Edmonton, and will be in the pool of players from which coach Lisa Thomaidis selects her final team for the Tokyo Olympics.

Edwards hopes a solid season of NCAA basketball will help her chances at making the Olympic team.

In the meantime, UConn's next game is Saturday versus Xavier. And there are classes and practices to fill the gaps in between games.

Auriemma said back in October that one of the positives of the pandemic was that his players never wanted to leave the gym because "they have nothing else to do."

Four months later, he worries the monotony is taking a toll.

"Getting to the gym is kind of a refuge. But then you need a refuge from the refuge," Auriemma told SB Nation's UConn blog. "Where do you go? You go back to the same thing over and over and over and over again. You get up in the morning, you do this, go home. Next day get up, do this. Nothing changes. Over a period of time, I think that's taken its toll."

Some of the other Canadian women shining on the NCAA stage this season are Laeticia Amihere of Mississauga, Ont., whose University of South Carolina Gamecocks were No. 1-ranked before a recent loss to UConn; Montreal's Sarah Te-Biasu, who earned freshman of the week honours earlier this season for Virginia Commonwealth; Taya Hanson of Kelowna, B.C., the leading scorer at Arizona State; Shaina Pellington of Pickering, Ont., (Arizona) and Hamilton's Hailey Brown (Michigan).

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 17, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press