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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    UConn women’s notes: ‘Masked Aaliyah’ makes her return

    UConn's Aaliyah Edwards, left, is guarded by Vermont's Anna Olson in the first-round NCAA tournament game March 18, 2023, in Storrs. Edwards, who broke her nose again during the Big East tournament, will resume wearing the mask for the NCAA tournament beginning Saturday. (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)

    Storrs — The mask, the one UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards wore last season largely as a precaution even after her broken nose had healed, was still in her locker.

    That made it an easy transition when Edwards broke her nose again in the recent Big East tournament quarterfinals at Mohegan Sun Arena. Once the swelling went down and Edwards could actually breathe comfortably again, she readopted the “Masked Aaliyah” look, which she will bear for the upcoming NCAA tournament.

    No. 3 UConn (29-5) faces No. 14 Jackson State (26-6) at 1:06 p.m. Saturday in the NCAA first round at Gampel Pavilion.

    “I told our (athletic trainer) that I just had to dust off the cobwebs a little bit because it was in the back (of my locker),” Edwards said with a laugh.

    “I mean, at this point, a lot of people love it. The UConn fans love it. So I’m all for it. I also told them earlier, it’s kind of like the haters need to beware because I’m coming back and I’m coming back heavy. I’m just excited that I’m back on the court with my team.”

    Edwards, the 6-foot-3 senior forward from Kingston, Ontario, in Canada, and UConn’s only true post player due to injuries, missed the semifinals and final in the Big East tournament. Redshirt freshman Ice Brady filled in, earning all-tournament honors as she played 40 minutes in two straight games.

    Edwards, an All-Big East first team pick and a national player of the year finalist, is averaging 17.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

    “Just seeing her (with the mask) in practice and the way she embraces that alter ego, I would say, has just reminded me of last year and the way she played,” UConn’s Nika Muhl said of her fellow senior.

    “Don’t get me wrong, this year she’s playing even better so when you combine the two, I mean, I don’t know what we’re going to get but I’m sure it’s going to be amazing.”

    Edwards, who has another year of eligibility remaining due to the extra COVID-19 season granted by the NCAA, announced Thursday that she’s declaring for the WNBA Draft after the season and will not return to UConn. Edwards and Muhl, who have played four years each, are moving on, while Paige Bueckers and Aubrey Griffin are returning after having been sidelined with injuries during their careers.

    “I don’t want it to take away from what we have left to do,” Edwards said of the decision, which she announced on social media.

    “It’s a celebration, so I try to emphasize just how great this program has treated me, how great my teammates and coach have treated me and how special this family is to me and I want to keep it that way. But we’re not done yet.”

    Southern accent

    Jackson State, which is playing in its third NCAA tournament under sixth-year head coach Tomekia Reed, has a one-year blip in its tournament resume.

    The Tigers were the top seed headed into last year’s Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament but lost to No. 4 Southern University in the semifinals, 65-64 on a buzzer-beater by Southern’s Aleightyah Fontenot, costing them an NCAA bid.

    Reed said her team wasn’t as tough last season as it needed to be, but also that when the team reconvened in July, the Southern loss came up quite often.

    “Our players heard about Southern University and that trophy every day,” Reed said Friday. “I was having nightmares waking up in sweats, watching somebody take the trophy away, and I would tell them about that.

    “Any moment where they wanted to be a weak moment or a moment where they wanted to give up or take a play off, we reminded them, ‘Taking plays off, we lost a trophy.’ You have to be tough. No plays off.”

    This season, the Tigers went unbeaten in the SWAC to return to the NCAA realm. They hope to build on their last appearance in 2022 when they lost a first-round game to No. 3 LSU 83-77, leading LSU 74-64 with 4:54 remaining. LSU outscored Jackson State 19-3 the remainder of the game.

    Quotable

    The winner of the UConn-Jackson State game will play Monday against the winner of Saturday’s other first-round game in Storrs between No. 6 Syracuse and No. 11 Arizona.

    Syracuse coach Felisha Legette-Jack has coached at Gampel Pavilion before as the head coach at Buffalo, UConn’s opponent in the second round in 2019.

    “We were here before and we played when I was at University of Buffalo and we got to the second game,” Legette-Jack said.

    “The crowd here is a veteran crowd that absolutely understands what women's basketball looks like, feels like and the respect that the crowd has, it cheers for everyone. Cheers louder for Connecticut for sure, but I just really am so humbled by the crowd and the ability to play in front of people that understand women's basketball.”

    v.fulkerson@theday.com

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