Northwestern coach Joe McKeown has seen a lot of basketball in his 28 years on the bench. He’s coached in more than 960 games over his career so he has a pretty good idea about talent and how the game is supposed to be played.
After playing and losing to Penn State for the second time this season, McKeown offered up his assessment of the Lady Lions’ Ariel Edwards, a player who has lurked more in the shadows than in the spotlight in her four seasons.
“She’s probably the most underrated player in the Big Ten and has been that way since she’s been here,” McKeown started. “It would have been better if she had come to Northwestern, right? She’s had a great career for them and they probably appreciate her because she does all of the little things.”
For a player who has taken the long road to a starting position with the Lady Lions, those words are nice to hear.
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“It’s a great compliment,” said Edwards, who along with Maggie Lucas, Talia East and Dara Taylor will be recognized on Senior Day as the No. 8 Lady Lions (21-6 overall, 12-3 Big Ten) face Michigan (17-11, 8-7) at 3:30 p.m. at the Bryce Jordan Center. “There’s so many good players in our league. Sometimes you can feel like your talents are lost or you’re not really appreciated as a player. It’s great to hear that.”
Edwards has earned every bit of the plaudits this season. She’s averaging 14.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, both totals that are around double her career averages.
In her first full season as a starter, Edwards is a big reason why the Lady Lions have a shot at clinching at least a tie Saturday for their third consecutive conference regular-season title.
“We’re not in this position without what she’s done,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “I just take my hat off to her because she’s really been an impact player for us all season long.”
Edwards is the first to admit that her trek to the starting lineup has been easy.
She arrived at Penn State having been a post player at Christ the King High School in New York. But at Penn State, Washington had plenty of post players. She needed the 6-foot-3 Edwards to move to the wing.
Making the adjustment wasn’t easy. In her first season, Edwards averaged 2.9 points in 33 games.
“I’ve always been that kind of player that the more experience I get the more comfortable I get and the better I do.”
Edwards is what coaches call “a thinker.”
And when she arrived at Penn State, Edwards wanted to deal in absolutes in a game that is constantly changing.
“I don’t think Ariel ever questioned how good of a player she was,” her position coach Kia Damon said.
“Sometimes putting together the mental and physical in your four years can be a challenge. Sometimes when you live in the world of absolutes … basketball isn’t a game that plays out that way. There’s always some gray area and your ability to thrive in that gray area is what separates good players from great players.”
Edwards admits her brain didn’t always help her play.
“Definitely and that hurts me sometimes,” she responds when asked if she is a thinker. “I think that’s why it took me this long to play the way I’m capable of playing.”
Edwards likes things orderly. For example, she doesn’t want items on her plate touching each other. She won’t eat syrup on pancakes because she doesn’t want it to spill over into the eggs. She’ll eat one Skittle at a time so the flavors don’t bleed into each other.
It was the same way for a time on the basketball court.
“It’s something that’s helped me and hurt me in terms of basketball that I do things a certain all of the time,” Edwards said. “It helps me to be a consistent player, but if I don’t understand something that’s happening on the court, sometimes it hinders my performance.
“I’ve learned that basketball is not going to be predictable. There are some things that are consistent within the game, but there’s a lot of things that move and change. I’ve become more flexible.”
Edwards began her junior season in the starting lineup, but just a few games into the season, she was relegated back to a reserve role.
After two seasons doing the same thing, the move back to the bench stung.
“It was tough, but it was a wake-up call for me,” Edwards said. “There were still some things I needed to learn and some confidence I needed to build in myself before I could start and be effective at that position consistently.
“It definitely was a hard time, but I learned a lot from it.”
She averaged a career-high 7.9 points per game as a junior. She arguably was the best player on the floor in Penn State’s 71-66 NCAA loss to LSU, scoring 13 points in 15 minutes.
With three starters graduating and seven freshmen joining the roster, Edwards knew that she was going to be in the starting lineup this season.
And from the start, she has been a different player.
“When you look at what Ariel has been statistically able to do in terms of the jump she’s made from junior to senior year, that’s a pretty impressive jump,” Damon said. “What she means to our team, she allows us to do so many different things offensively and defensively. We can play lots of different styles because of Ariel.”
Ask teammates what has made Edwards better, and one word comes up consistently.
“Her confidence has really grown which has allowed her to do a lot of things that she’s been working on the last four years,” Lucas said. “She’s been a huge player for us and we count on her every game.”
“Her confidence is up so much more this year,” East added. “She is so confident and she knows we need her to score the ball. We need her to attack and shoot that mid-range. We need her to go into the paint strong and get rebounds. I think she’s done a phenomenal job.”
Edwards says her teammates are right.
“I do think I’m more confident, but I realized my role had to change,” she said.
Being a starter meant a different mindset than coming off the bench.
“Coming off the bench, whatever you can provide is great,” Edwards said. “There’s not really a lot of expectations for you to do something every night.”
Washington and her staff made it plain that there were plenty of expectations for Edwards. With the loss of Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene and Mia Nickson, the Lady Lions had to have a consistent scorer to take some of the pressure off Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year.
She’s done that with a variety of drives to the basket, mid-range jumpers and even long bombs.
Although she hasn’t shot many, Edwards is the team’s best percentage 3-point shooter (39 percent).
“She’s just really elevated her play and you can see it in the confidence in which she attacks the basket and shoots the ball,” Washington said.
Edwards admits it’s been difficult shooting more. She’s put up 334 shots this season, compared to 467 for her first three years combined.
“Initially, it really didn’t come natural to me,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, I’ve just always been that way that I don’t feel comfortable shooting the ball a lot.
“This year, we didn’t know what we were going to get from anybody,” she added. “Coach Washington told me, ‘This is what I need from you every night.’ That definitely helped me for the games to have a more laser-like focus.”
Scoring isn’t the only responsibility that Washington needed.
The Lady Lions needed someone who could be a stopper on defense and Edwards was Washington’s choice. With excellent foot speed and length, Edwards can cover point guards all of the way up to power forwards.
“We graduated Alex Bentley who was a phenomenal defender,” Washington said. “… When you lose a defender like that, you look around and go, ‘Who’s going to step up and get stops for us?’ Ariel has really elevated her play on that end.”
Edwards likes the challenge.
“I think it’s great,” Edwards said. “If you want to be the best, you have to guard the best. Going into every game with a new challenge has pushed me to be a better player.”
Edwards hopes that challenge will help her play professionally.
“I really feel like I might have a chance at that,” she said. “It’s really exciting. … Definitely after I finish here, playing basketball is something I want to do whether it’s in the WNBA or overseas.”
Edwards has a pretty good fallback if it doesn’t work out. The health policy and administration major is looking towards medical school and becoming a surgeon.
Basketball and have athletics have been a big part of her family. Edwards’ older brother Johnathan played at Radford and her cousin Winston Blake Jr. was a 1,000-point scorer at Northwestern. Her mother Tulia played volleyball in South America.
Edwards said her family has been integral in her success — from her father Everton pushing her to practice to playing pickup basketball against guys on the playgrounds with Johnathan.
She’ll leave Penn State with her head held high and brimming with confidence. She knows that today’s game won’t be her last at the Jordan Center, since the Lady Lions have the opportunity to play two NCAA Tournament games at home.
“It’s kind of crazy to think that it’s almost over and there are only a few games left,” Edwards said. “It’s bittersweet. You definitely want to leave a place where it’s kind of sad to leave, but not impossible to leave.”
Edwards, who likes to shop and read (Kite Runner is her favorite book), says the girl that walked on campus four years ago is not the same one who will walk off.
“They’re two totally different people,” she said. “…. It’s a great to see that some hard work paid off. It’s exciting to see yourself improve and to know where you’ve been and where you’re heading.”