Opposites attract: UConn bigs Olivia Nelson-Ododa, Aaliyah Edwards meshing well

UConn's Olivia Nelson-Ododa (20) and Aailiyah Edwards (3) defend against Seton Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2020 in South Orange, N.J.

UConn’s Olivia Nelson-Ododa (20) and Aailiyah Edwards (3) defend against Seton Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2020 in South Orange, N.J.

UConn Athletics / Contributed Photo

Olivia Nelson-Ododa stands 6-foot-5 with an even longer wingspan, and has looked every bit the imposing rim protector that can anchor a strong defense. Aaliyah Edwards is two inches shorter, but plays a more physical style.

Their skill sets very much contrast, which, if you ask UConn coach Geno Auriemma, is why the forwards mesh so well on the floor.

“The fact that they’re different helps them a lot,” Auriemma said Tuesday on Zoom. “They don’t step all over each other. Aaliyah is comfortable down low. She’s comfortable playing a physical game. Liv is comfortable playing a much more finesse game. They’re always on opposite sides of the lane — one’s high, one’s low.”

Nelson-Ododa is a junior, not to mention the lone returning true post player with any experience. She’s averaging 12.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks and is in the hunt for Naismith Defensive Player of the Year.

Factor in the emergence of Edwards and the Huskies have a strong, imposing frontcourt to lean on in March. The freshman from Canada is averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 boards and shooting a team-high 67.6%, mostly off the bench.

Top-ranked UConn (18-1) visits Creighton on Thursday (5 p.m.). The Huskies can clinch their 20th Big East regular-season title, and first since 2011, with a victory.

“It’s obviously a huge benefit to have two post players that can both play together, complement each other, and spell each other,” Auriemma said. “They have different skill sets. It’s something that we obviously didn’t have last year, and you could see the difference that it’s made.”

Both bigs factored prominently in Saturday’s 83-32 victory over Xavier. Nelson-Ododa had 11 points, eight rebounds and six assists, and Edwards turned in 16 points and 11 rebounds for her first double-double. They played 24 and 26 minutes, respectively.

On the season, Nelson-Ododa is averaging 25 minutes and Edwards 20.1. They’ve started together twice.

“I think we always just play to our strengths,” Edwards said of herself and Nelson-Ododa. “We just build off each other’s energy and momentum because we get a lot of opportunities in the high-low action, or if I’m posting up down low, you know she’s up top and she’s got that shot if her defender sinks into me, or vice versa. I think we just have good post movement together.”

Nelson-Ododa said there’s a comfort level between the two that continues to grow.

“Just her IQ and her toughness down low, it definitely helps a lot,” Nelson-Ododa explained. “She is willing to look for me as I am for her, especially high-low, so I think playing with her makes it a lot easier just from those simple factors, and she only just continues to get better each day.”

They know how to work together defensively, as well. They’re a big reason — literally and figuratively — why the Huskies rank 15th in the country in blocked shots (107) and fifth in both scoring defense (51.3) and opponent’s shooting percentage (33.3).

“Defensively, they complement each other because they both can be long enough to cause problems,” Auriemma said. “Aaliyah maybe more so on the perimeter can do some things, and Liv’s a better shot blocker. I just think that because they’re opposites, they complement each other perfectly.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour