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Oct. 20—NEW YORK — Aaliyah Edwards hopes the lessons she learned with Team Canada at the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer will pay off as she enters her sophomore season with the UConn women's basketball team.
"It was amazing," Edwards said. "I'm very grateful for it. What I took most out of it was to be professional. I learned a lot from all the elite athletes and their dedication and determination for the past four years just to get to that point. You could see it in the way they talk and the way they move. It was amazing to be around them and soak up that experience and live it."
Though she played less than a minute over two games for Team Canada, which did not advance to the knockout round in Tokyo, training and practicing with professionals including former UConn guard Kia Nurse leading up to the Games was an experience of a lifetime.
And the 6-foot-3 forward is only 19.
"Being with the national team, you're playing with older girls and they're going to be stronger than you and bigger than you," Edwards said. "You really have to go battle it out with them. You could say I've become aggressive from having that experience with them. I feel great."
Big East coaches are expecting great things from Edwards as they named her to the preseason all-league team that was announced at media day Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.
A season ago she was the Big East Sixth Woman of the Year and was named to the all-freshman team after averaging 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds.
"I always think about what they learned from one season to the next," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "What did Aaliyah show us and what didn't she show us? She showed us that she can play physically at a really high level and play with an intensity level that great players have. She will rebound and play defense and run the floor hard. She will give you the effort part.
"What she didn't show us was can she make enough shots from the perimeter to make people not stand there and let us get to the basket and be easy for them to trap our ball handlers because they don't have to respect her ability to shoot the ball. I think that is the next step for her."
If she can add that to her game, Edwards will make the Huskies that much tougher.
"My confidence is one thing I'm working on in whatever I do," Edwards said. "Like with my outside shot, finishing inside ... I think I've grown over the summer and now I want to bring that into the season."
Like mother, like daughter?
Azzi Fudd was quick to downplay her being the unanimous choice as preseason Big East Freshman of the Year.
"It doesn't really mean much because I haven't even stepped onto the court as a college player yet for a real game," the UConn guard said.
During one of Fudd's visits to Storrs during the recruiting process, the Huskies' coaching staff showed her video of her mother, Katie Smrcka-Duffy, playing for Georgetown against UConn.
Smrcka-Duffy was a three-time all-Big East second-team selection for the Hoyas (1999-2001) after transferring from North Carolina State.
"I haven't really seen many videos of her playing so it was really cool for me to see," Fudd said. "Afterward she talked about it and how she was so mad because her team would just give up on the bus ride to UConn. They'd talk about how they just wanted to go home because they knew they were going to get smacked. She'd be the only one competing."
Fudd was asked if she is competitive with her mother.
"She tells me that if I played her in her prime that she would destroy me," Fudd said with a smile.
During her one season at North Carolina State, Smrcka-Duffy was named the Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year. So there's a bar for Fudd to reach, perhaps?
"My family doesn't look at awards like that," Fudd said. "We're not focused on that but more overall performance. But she did really well."
UConn was the unanimous selection as the team to beat in the Big East preseason coaches poll. That was expected.
It also probably should not have been surprising that the Huskies were slotted at No. 2 behind South Carolina in the Associated Press preseason poll released Tuesday. Coming off their 13th consecutive NCAA Final Four appearance, the Huskies return their starting lineup and welcome Ohio State transfer Dorka Juhasz and a highly-rated recruiting class led by Azzi Fudd.
Auriemma was surprised, but not in the way you might think.
"I'm not even sure how we are No. 2," he said. "Doesn't Stanford have everyone back from a national championship team? They lost a point guard. So what. I remember we lost a point guard (Renee Montgomery in 2009) one year and we were still No. 1 the following year. We should probably be like fourth or fifth."
That caught Christyn Williams by surprise. The senior guard rolled her eyes when told of her team's ranking.
"He said that? Really?" Williams said. "He's always so hard on us. Why is he always so hard on us? Why did he say that, did he give a reason?
"I have no words."
South Carolina, like UConn, lost in the national semifinals in April. It returns a strong nucleus and welcomes Syracuse transfer Kamilla Cardoso and a highly-rated recruiting class.
The Gamecocks received 14 first-place votes and 705 points from the national media panel. The Huskies got 10 first-place votes and 696 points. Reigning national champion Stanford received the other five first-place votes and 682 points.
When the Chicago Sky won their first WNBA title Sunday, they became the 17th league champion (out of 25) to have at least one UConn graduate on it. It also gave the Huskies 18 graduates with WNBA crowns with the addition of the Sky's Stefanie Dolson and Azura Stevens.
"We're pretty good at putting players in the pros, and once they get there they're pretty good," Auriemma said. "I think that's what that means. I said last week, Azura hasn't come close to matching any potential she has. She is not even close. She has so much upside. And there is not a team in basketball that wouldn't be a championship contender if you added Stef on the team."
"Stef has earned everything she has gotten. She has a talent and she has a skill that a lot of kids in that league don't have. She is a big kid who can make outside shots, and she is a better passer than almost anyone else on her team. Unfortunately for Stef she plays with Sloot (Courtney Vandersloot) so she can't ever be the best passer on that team. When you have a big kid who can do that you are really hard to play against."
DePaul coach Doug Bruno was at Sunday's deciding Game 4 held at the Blue Demons' home court Wintrust Arena to cheer on DePaul graduate Allie Quigley,
"We're thrilled for Allie and it's great to see someone persevere like Allie," Bruno said. "She graduated in 2008 and didn't stick in the league until 2013. That's five years of fighting, getting knocked down, fighting, getting knocked down, and getting up and fighting again. Candace (Parker) coming back ... So that's two Chicago people winning a championship in their hometown. It's a great story."
Auriemma on his team topping the Big East preseason poll and the UConn men coming in at No. 2 behind Villanova: "What this preseason ranking does is it proves to everybody why we needed to make that move (back to the Big East). Every move you see happen in that other league (the AAC) now tells you why we really needed to make that move and how much it was going to benefit our men's basketball program.
"I know that our fans are anxious to see us play. But I think they miss more than anything going to a game with our guys playing Providence and being able to be like our fans are when they play teams like Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, or Marquette or especially Villanova. I'm probably more excited about our men's basketball season than our own."
For coverage of all sports in the JI's 18-town coverage area, plus updates on the UConn women's basketball team and head coach Geno Auriemma, follow Carl Adamec on Twitter: @CarlAdamec, Facebook: Carl Adamec, and Instagram: @CarlAdamec.