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Edwards is in no rush for last dance to end


Aaliyah Edwards is in no rush for her last dance to draw to its conclusion.

The Kingston, Ont., native,  who announced last Thursday that she’s entering next month’s WNBA Draft, had 11 points and 11 rebounds Monday night in UConn’s 72-64 win against Syracuse, helping lift the Huskies to their NCAA-record 30th consecutive Sweet 16, where they’ll face seventh-seed Duke in Portland on Saturday.

On paper, the win over the Orange appeared textbook – Edwards patrolling the inside, and All-American Paige Bueckers in do-it-all mode, scoring 32 points and adding 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals. In all, four of the six UConn players who stepped on the court scored in double figures, with freshmen Ashlynn Shade and KK Arnold combining to score 29.

But it was far from comfortable.

UConn’s 10-point fourth quarter lead was trimmed to three in the final minute, before Bueckers – amidst three defenders – swung the ball to Arnold for a three-pointer that helped put the game on ice. Following a Syracuse miss in the dying seconds, it was Bueckers – fittingly – securing the rebound and firing up the home crowd at Gampel Pavilion.

Survive and advance. That’s the name of the game this time of year.

It’s been an uphill climb for UConn, which has won a record 11 national championships under head coach Geno Auriemma. The Huskies won four straight titles between 2013 and 2016, but have been empty-handed since, losing to South Carolina in the 2022 final and then having their streak of 14 straight Final Four appearances come to an end in the Elite Eight at the hands of Ohio State last March.

What was once the undisputed best program in women’s college basketball suddenly has plenty of competition.

UConn, a No. 3 seed in this year’s tournament, slipped as low as 17th in the AP Poll in December, the furthest it’s tumbled in the national rankings in 30 years.

The Huskies lost three of their first seven games this season – nearly unheard of for a program that’s lost no more than three games in 19 separate seasons since Auriemma took over in 1985 – before running the table in the Big East to win their 11th straight conference title (including seven in the AAC between 2014 and 2020).

Make no mistake, this year’s slow start was no fault of their head coach, or of Edwards or Bueckers. The Huskies lost junior guard Azzi Fudd to a torn ACL in the season’s second game, and have been without fellow guard Caroline Ducharme since mid-November due to head and neck injuries. Senior Aubrey Griffin, who was fourth on the team in scoring and second to Edwards in rebounding, had her season come to an end in early January when she tore her ACL in a win over Creighton.

It’s a familiar challenge. Last year, Bueckers was sidelined for the entire season tearing her ACL in a summer pick-up game, and UConn was without Fudd for 22 games following a December knee injury.

An increased load for Edwards was met with an appropriate response.

As a junior, she more than doubled her scoring average (from 7.9 as a sophomore to team-leading 16.6) while leading the Big East in field goal percentage (58.9).

“Aaliyah’s had to work under much more trying situations than most players would’ve had to,” Auriemma said last week. “When you’ve had to do it by yourself for so long, it’s wearing.

“She’s managed to be great for us every night. She has no choice, really. She has to be great.”

Bueckers has shouldered the scoring load this year, but Edwards is still averaging career highs of 17.6 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. Once again, she’s leading the conference in field goal percentage (59.3), and earlier this month was named to the All-Big East First Team for the second year in a row.

Next stop, the WNBA.

Last week’s announcement was expected, with Edwards widely projected as a first-round pick in next month’s draft. But with Bueckers announcing last month that she’s forgoing the draft to return to UConn next season, Edwards admitted she went back and forth on the decision before deciding to pass on her extra year of eligibility from the NCAA’s COVID waiver.

“If it was easy, I would’ve made a decision at the start of the season,” Edwards said last week. “Everyone can see how special this team is. Behind the scenes, they’re even more special to me.”

She won’t be alone at the next level. Fifteen former UConn players were on WNBA rosters to start last season, including league MVP Breanna Stewart and fellow Canadian Kia Nurse.

“This program is built for pros,” Edwards said. “It trains you to be a pro from early on. It challenges you…I feel mentally, physically [and] emotionally ready.”

But first there is the meeting with Duke, which is fresh off an upset of Ohio State – the team that ended UConn’s run last March – in the Round of 32. After missing the NCAA Tournament four straight times between 2018 and 2022, the Blue Devils are eager to re-assert themselves as an elite program in women’s college basketball.

Then there’s the Huskies, trying to reclaim their title as the elite program.

For Edwards, it’s the one thing left on her checklist.

“We’re not done yet,” she said. “We’re still trying to achieve our goal.”