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Seniors shoulder pressure for UConn women entering last home game vs Villanova: How to watch, what to know

STORRS — UConn women’s basketball forward Aaliyah Edwards started her week by logging a double-double with 24 points and a season-high 17 rebounds in the Huskies’ 104-67 win over DePaul on Sunday night.

Less than 24 hours later, the Huskies senior was announced as the first college athlete to sign an NIL deal with Adidas Canada. It’s a particularly unique opportunity for Edwards, who is from Ontario, because the student visa she needs to attend UConn prevents her from participating in NIL agreements with U.S.-based companies.

The restrictions international student-athletes face to their earning potential also bring to the forefront the question that grows more pressing for Edwards as the season progresses: Will she be back in 2024-25 or declare for this year’s WNBA Draft?

“I’m not sure. Some days I feel like I want to do this, some days I want to do that, but I just want to stay present and stay in the moment,” Edwards said. “It’s funny, I had a conversation with Coach (Geno Auriemma) leading up to Senior Night … and I just told him that I’m treating each and every game, each and every quarter just doing what we need to do to get ready and work towards our goal.”

Edwards won’t make her plans official until the Huskies’ season ends, but Paige Bueckers and Aubrey Griffin announced on Senior Night Feb. 16 that both are staying at UConn for another season. Nika Muhl also said Tuesday that she is “really close,” to making her decision publicly.

“I just feel like I’m trying to look for the right time to announce everything, but that’s all I’m going to say,” Muhl said with a smile. ” … When you’re here, especially at UConn, it’s not about how much money you make or NIL or what else you can do. Everybody’s priority here is basketball and the legacy … It’s about experience, it’s about the relationships, it’s about the connections, and it’s about winning and being part of this greatness.”

The uncertain future is one of many pressures UConn’s seniors are shouldering with two games left in the regular season, especially because their biggest challenges in the near future will be on the court. The No. 10 Huskies (24-5, 16-0 Big East) host Villanova (17-10, 10-6), currently tied for third in the conference, on Wednesday (7 p.m., SNY) for their final game at Gampel Pavilion until at least the start of the NCAA Tournament.

UConn has been reliant on its seniors, especially on Edwards and Bueckers, since No. 17 Notre Dame snapped its 13-game winning streak on Jan. 27. Both are averaging more than 30 minutes per game and are No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in both points and rebounds. Bueckers leads with 20.5 points to Edwards’s 18.2, though she has no hope of catching Edwards on the boards averaging 4.5 to the forward’s team-high 9.5.

“I had one rebound tonight, but it’s like I go in there with Aaliyah and she comes up with everything. It’s like how an anteater swallows ants, she swallows the ball when she gets it,” Bueckers said after beating DePaul. “She just has knack for rebounding. She’s hungry, she’s aggressive, she’s dominant. She’s been so consistent for us, and she’s really bee the key piece to our success.”

Bueckers added her third 30-point game of the season to Edwards’s double-double in Sunday’s win over DePaul, a microcosm of the dynamic-duo effort that has fueled UConn to four straight wins by 20-plus points. Auriemma said the coaching staff has made a conscious effort to implement more two-man game for its stars, especially with Bueckers playing mostly out of position as a forward.

“What’s helped is Paige is usually being guarded by a forward, who’s not used to guarding the person with the ball in a ball screen; They’re used to guarding the guy in the ball screen,” Auriemma said. “So there’s been a great connection between the two of them … and they’re getting better at reading it, so there’s a lot of things that are kind of falling into place.”

Auriemma has described freshmen starters KK Arnold and Ashlynn Shade as “life savers” for the way they stepped into the Huskies’ lineup far earlier than ever expected. But the pair have also never experienced the atmosphere or the grueling schedule of an NCAA postseason, nor have top bench options Qadence Samuels and Ice Brady. The Huskies’ coach knows that his team’s tournament success will rest squarely on the performance of the veterans, and that means Muhl just as much as it does the two former All-Americans.

“Nika’s a mercurial kind of personality, and when you get her in a space where she’s operating at real high level, the defense is spectacular, the ball handling, the vision on the assists, the making threes,” Auriemma said. “And you saw what happened in the Notre Dame game when she only played for 10 minutes. We just can’t function. And down in South Carolina when she really struggled. It’s become where it’s crucial that she play great and stay out of foul trouble.”

How to watch

Site: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

Time: 7 p.m., Wednesday

Series: UConn leads, 43-18

Last meeting: UConn, 81-60 on Jan. 31 in Villanova, Pa.

TV: SNY

Streaming: SNY.tv

Radio: UConn Sports Network on Fox Sports 97.9