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Showdown with ‘iconic’ UConn program unforgettable experience for TMU Bold

UConn Aaliyah Edwards Paige Bueckers Nika Muhl - Jared Beltz - UConn Huskies Website

TORONTO – History will show that UConn beat Toronto Metropolitan University 111-34 on Dec. 20, 2023 but the influence of the women’s college basketball game will go far beyond the scoresheet.

In setting up a homecoming game for Kingston, Ont., product Aaliyah Edwards, UConn initially had a game scheduled with Pittsburgh but it fell through, leading the Huskies to call TMU head coach Carly Clarke about whether TMU had any interest in hosting a game at Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto.

For Clarke, who coached the TMU Bold to a U Sports championship in 2022 and had the team out to a 10-0 start heading into tonight’s contest, it was an immediate yes and she did not hesitate at the idea of her team facing NCAA Division I women’s basketball royalty.

“Our program is about trying to be the best at getting better,” said Clarke after the game. “And you do that by playing the best, so obviously a massive challenge, but we knew we would create an experience that our players will never forget. And 3,000 people that were here tonight will never forget. You can’t pass on those opportunities.”

“They’re an iconic program,” said TMU fourth-year guard Kaillie Hall, who had three points and five assists. “They’re a program that I’ve followed throughout my career and just pure excitement and joy. The challenge I think is the biggest thing. I know our team is really competitive so just being able to welcome someone into our gym that we know is a challenge is a unique opportunity that not a lot of people get anymore.”

Edwards was the centre of attention Wednesday night, having the rare opportunity to sing along to the Canadian national anthem while in a Huskies uniform. While the nerves showed early on with turnovers and fouls, she settled in, scoring a game-high 26 points with 10 rebounds.

She said after the game that she felt blessed to have the opportunity to have a senior homecoming game, UConn’s third of the season after honouring Paige Bueckers in November in Minnesota and Nika Muhl on Dec. 6, where she faced her sister Hana on Ball State with their parents visiting from Croatia in attendance.

“I think as seniors we just appreciate it because the amount of effort and passion that we put into the organization and into UConn, they’re pouring it back into us, giving us opportunities to kind of come home and to play in front of family who may not be able to see us in person,” said Edwards. “I had fun, I had a lot of people in the stands, people that I went to high school that I saw but it was just a lot of love tonight.”

In another blast from the past, Hall played alongside Edwards on the U16 Canadian national team and played against her in the provincial system and in high school.

“I mean the talent was there, you can see it at a young age,” said Hall of Edwards. “And obviously has developed even more from that young player and has really grown into an all-around player and I think also just a really great role model in Canadian basketball.” 

One of the guests in the building was former UConn guard and Hamilton, Ont., native Kia Nurse. Hall, who is also from Hamilton, remembers being in the crowd at Mattamy Athletic Centre in December 2017, when UConn had a homecoming game for Nurse against Duquesne University.

“It’s been really full circle and obviously being a young girl and watching that happen and then actually being able to play in it and represent a university that I’m really proud to be a part of, and a program that I’m really proud to be a part of, there’s nothing like it,” said Hall.

“It’s super special and something that will stick with me for a long time.”

For UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, he was well aware of the talent disparity going into the game but admired that Clarke and the TMU squad were up for the challenge of facing his team that is ranked No. 17 in the NCAA rankings.

“I think it takes a little bit of courage to play us when you’re in Carly’s situation and I admire that, there’s not a lot of people that would do it,” said Auriemma. “We’ll be grateful for this opportunity. And I think when you do something like this, I think you’re also sending a message that you believe in your team, you believe in your players, and you believe in the program that you’re building.

“I looked down their end and I never saw any sign of like ‘what are we doing here?’ They make a three and it’s like they’re playing for their conference championship. They’re excited, they’re happy. I was really impressed.”

While it was expected UConn would run away with the victory, Clarke is ready to get back into the gym and get her team prepared for the second half of the season as they have championship aspirations of their own to work towards.

“I’m a competitor so losing, and losing how we lost today score wise, that is going to eat at me as we’re off for the next eight days until we practise again,” said Clarke.

“That game, we need more of that. We’re getting challenged in ways that we don’t get challenged and now we’re going to go into the second half of the season knowing a lot more about ourselves and our team.”