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Freshman Edwards a key contributor for No. 1 UConn women going forward

UConn coach Geno Auriemma was recently listing his goals for freshman forward Aaliyah Edwards.

"I want her to be the toughest kid on the floor. I want her to be the most aggressive kid on the floor. I want her to run the floor harder than anybody else. I want her to be an impact player every possession at both ends of the floor," Auriemma said.

To hear it, that seems somewhat daunting for a freshman.

Then you witness it.

During top-ranked UConn's last game, a 77-32 victory Wednesday at St. John's, the 6-foot-3 Edwards stole an inbounds pass near the top of the opposing 3-point line early in the second quarter, tipping it to herself and taking it virtually uncontested down the court for a layup.

On Feb. 5 in a game at Marquette, Edwards took a shot to the mouth while drawing a charging foul early in the fourth quarter, knocked from the game. She responded three days later to contribute to a hardfought overtime win over then-No. 1 South Carolina, the victory which lifted the Huskies into the top spot — "Nothing major. No fracture or anything," Edwards said of the collision. "I just got hit in the mouth pretty good."

"I was impressed by Aaliyah the very first time I saw her," Auriemma said. "I was impressed with her toughness and her physical ability to run the floor, her aggressiveness, how relentless she pursued the ball and pursued the play. ... Since she's been here, she's been everything I expected."

Edwards is one of seven freshmen on the roster and one of the integral pieces of the puzzle going forward for UConn (17-1, 14-0), which continues its five-game road trip with a Saturday matchup (3 p.m., SNY) against Big East opponent Xavier (4-6, 1-5) in Cincinnati.

Auriemma spent time after Wednesday's romp at St. John's talking about how every game from now on is preparation for March, and Friday the Big East announced its plans for the conference tournament to be held March 5-8 at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Edwards, the Kingston, Ontario, native who wears gold and purple braids as a result of a Los Angeles Lakers obsession growing up, particularly as a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, has started two games for UConn, Jan. 9 against Providence and Feb. 3 against St. John's.

During the Feb. 3 game, she had career highs of 22 points and 9 rebounds. Edwards is averaging 9.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game and has a field goal percentage of .667 (68-for-102).

"We played the No. 1 team in the country, South Carolina, on national television and she was out there acting like, 'I do this all the time,'" Auriemma said. "She would be a lot better but she gets in her own way sometimes. I think as she just plays more, she gets better and better all the time."

It has been a common thread throughout the season for UConn: the performance of these seven freshmen, at first a curiosity — the Feb. 3 game against St. John's was the first instance since 1999 that Auriemma started three freshmen — and now a regular occurrence.

Fellow freshman Paige Bueckers leads the Huskies in points (21.1 per game), assists (5.9), steals (2.4) and 3-point field goal percentage (.558, first in nation) and became the first player in Big East history to sweep Player of the Week and Freshman of the Week honors more than once.

Auriemma, a stickler for details, has been complimentary of the newcomers, especially the effort, referring to them as "regular John Havliceks" — referring to the Boston Celtics Hall of Famer — in what he calls a basketball world filled with vanilla.

"Trying to up the intensity level to what I call it to a Connecticut level, is not the easiest thing in the world," Auriemma said. "The younger you are, the more difficult it is most times. Aaliyah has it. Nika (Muhl, also a freshman starter) has it. Mir (McLean) can have it at times when she's got it going. For sure, they have it and Paige, she has it in a different way."

The Huskies have three more road games before returning home March 1 against Marquette.

Then, they will play in their first Big East tournament since 2013, following seven seasons in the American Athletic Conference.

The opening round of the tournament will be played Friday, March 5, with quarterfinals Saturday, semifinals Sunday and the championship game at 8 p.m. Monday. No fan access is anticipated.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

BIG EAST TOURNAMENT

At Mohegan Sun Arena

Saturday, March 5

First Round

Game 1: No. 8 seed vs. No. 9 seed, 11 a.m.

Game 2: No. 7 seed vs. No. 10 seed, 2 p.m.

Game 3: No. 6 seed vs. No. 11 seed, 5 p.m.

Sunday, March 6

Quarterfinals

Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. No. 1 seed, Noon (FS1)

Game 5: No. 4 seed vs. No. 5 seed, 3 p.m. (FS2)

Game 6: Game 2 winner vs. No. 2 seed, 6 p.m. (FS2)

Game 7: Game 3 winner vs. No. 3 seed, 9 p.m. (FS2)

Monday, March 7

Semifinals

Game 8: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 3 p.m. (FS1)

Game 9: Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 6 p.m. (FS1)

Tuesday, March 8

Final

Game 10: Semifinal winners, 8 p.m. (FS1)

Note: No fan access is expected at this time.

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