Dom Amore: With the heat on, Ice Brady found herself at the center of UConn women’s Big East championship

UNCASVILLE — Ice Brady took her Big East championship ballcap, filled it with the blue and red confetti that was showering over the UConn women’s basketball team and presented it to her mother like an Easter basket.

“I’m beyond proud,” said Sophia Knight, who came up from D.C. to witness her daughter’s three-day coming-of-age performance at Mohegan Sun Arena. “I couldn’t be more proud of her resilience. She stayed ready, she showed up when she got her opportunity.”

Like all players who come to UConn, Brady was used to being the best of the best, used to being more than good enough. And there was no reason to believe otherwise before she injured her knee during her first summer on campus, and had season-ending surgery.

4-peat complete: UConn women’s basketball routs Georgetown 78-42 to claim Big East Tournament title

She returned last fall as a red-shirt freshman, still untested in college, but with Jana El Alfy out Brady would have to be the primary backup to Aaliyah Edwards. Geno Auriemma needed a lot from her, and let that be known.

Then on Dec. 3, the Huskies went to Texas and Auriemma wanted to match the Longhorns size with a big lineup. He started Brady alongside Edwards and Aubrey Griffin, and the results discouraging. Brady was 2-for-7, three rebounds, five turnovers in 26 minutes in the double-digit loss.

“It was a horrible decision by me,” Auriemma said. “I put those guys in impossible situations, specifically Ice.”

That was the low point in a season of ups and downs.

“There were definitely times when I was a little worried,” Knight said. “It’s hard here. They do hard things every day in practice. Here, everyone is great. I’d tell her, ‘but you’re great. You belong here and your time will come.'”

That time came Saturday afternoon when Edwards was fouled hard and broke her nose in the Big East tournament quarterfinals. Brady was put into the game with no safety net. She would have to play every minute the rest of the way, 2 1/2 games in less than 60 hours.

“All the hardships she’s been through prepared her for this opportunity,” he mother said.

Isuneh “Ice” Brady, the 6-foot-3 San Diegan, came through her first test of postseason fire, not a hint of self-doubt or foul trouble. In the championship game Monday she scored 13 points with eight rebounds in UConn’s 78-42 victory over Georgetown. In the three games, she scored 31 with 16 rebounds and made the All-Tournament team.

“Having Aaliyah out, I feel like ‘old me’ would have been scared,” Brady said. “A little timid, a little hesitant. Just seeing how everything fell, there was no reason for me not to be confident in my shot, in my defense. Working so hard in practice, through the hard days and the tough days prepared me for this. I trusted my work and trusted my faith.”

The “new” Ice received her invitation and appeared shortly after she checked in against Providence. In the first huddle, Nika Muhl put a finger in Brady’s face and called for her to step up, or words, perhaps unprintable, to this effect.

“The things I’ve been telling her all year,” Muhl said. “I don’t think she understands how good she is. I don’t think she understands how hard she works and how all that work is going to pay off. This tournament, she proved to herself foremost that she could do it. I’m so proud of her. She stepped up so big and that takes so much maturity that I don’t think she knew she has. … She didn’t win just the game, she won over herself.”

During the course of the season, Auriemma came to believe he had to be tougher on Brady, let her know what was expected. She worked hard enough, he wanted to see her compete harder.

“I needed to see how her competitive spirit could impact our team, and the skills would take care of themselves,” he said.

“In the moment, it was mentally very challenging for me,” Brady said. “I had a hard time getting used to his coaching style and trying to understand what he was trying to get out of me. At times, I didn’t see what he saw. But he continued to push me. There were times I felt I was coming up short, for him and for the team, but he showed how much he cared and believed in me. I’m definitely glad he did. All those hard days, all those failures just made me more hungry.”

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As the season wore on and injuries mounted, Edwards had to carry a heavy load. Still, Brady’s minutes and production were sporadic, 20 per game, with 4.1 points, 3.1 rebounds.

She would call and talk to her mother, who is close enough to get to more games, or her father, John Brady, who came from the West Coast to see a few games. Her parents encouraged her to stay the course, trust in what the coaches were doing.

“My mom knows all the struggles, she’s been there for me,” Brady said. “When I didn’t believe in myself, she still believed in me. Never let me give up because there were times I felt that was an option. And my Dad, I talk to my Dad every day, if not three times a day. Those are my people.”

Her knee injury in 2022 coincided with Paige Bueckers’ torn ACL, so they became rehab buddies throughout the season, sharing their faith. This weekend at Mohegan Sun, they were roommates and there were more heart-to-heart talks.

“We got so close during our injuries, leaning on each other,” Bueckers said. “We started going to Bible study together, going to church together. I just told her, ‘God’s timing is perfect.’ Being a freshman at UConn is hard, and I told her that. Just having her growth, the timing of her being at her best at the biggest moment when and being confident when everybody on the team believes in her, and the coaching staff. Making sure she makes the most of that moment was a conversation we had a lot.”

The support system was there, but when Edwards went out, the moment was all Brady’s. There was no out. She couldn’t be tired, couldn’t be timid.

“Playing the whole 40 minutes, I never pictured that,” she said.

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Neither did Auriemma, but that was what was needed.

“Sometimes you don’t know what’s inside people until they’ve really got to dig down deep and see what they have,” Auriemma told the crowd after the championship was won.

By Monday night, it had gotten beyond the minutes, the points, the rebounds. Brady looked like a different person, not just a different player, sure of herself and her every movement, gesture and word on the court.

“Any time I felt anxious I just remembered this was all part of God’s plan,” Brady said. “When Aaliyah went down, it was a surreal moment for me and I knew I was next up and if I was leaning on the circumstances of everything, I would not have had the confidence I did.”

Now that the “new Ice” has shown herself, there is no going back. When Edwards returns, as she likely will when the Huskies play in the NCAA Tournament at the end of next week, the Huskies will look for this version of Brady whenever she is on the floor. “If not better,” Auriemma said, “because she’s have the chance to rest.”

“… I always believed that she had it in her, but at some point you have to believe in yourself and that was evident,” he said. “I hope that this feels so good, and that she is so proud of herself that she will want to keep experiencing this as we go forward. We have a better player today than we had last Thursday. And when Aaliyah does come back, we’ll have more good players on our team.”

Final Four-bound Trinity extending its basketball season to the last shot, savoring every moment