FORT SMITH — Basketball seemed like a thing of the past for Aaliyah Prince.
Graduated from New Mexico State after a stellar playing career, she was back home in Texas last year and transitioning into postgraduate life.
Then everything changed with an offer she couldn’t refuse.
University of Arkansas-Fort Smith women’s basketball coach Ryan McAdams, a former New Mexico State assistant coach, had suggested Prince play one last season. The Lions couldn’t be happier now to have the 5-8 degree transfer guard back in the game, who’s making an impression on and off the pitch.
Though Prince didn’t play last season, he hasn’t missed a shot since returning to basketball. In her first four games of the season for UAFS, she averaged team-bests in points (14.3), rebounds (5.7), assists (3.3), steals (1.3), and blocks (0.7).
“Your play didn’t surprise us,” McAdams said. “I know she can play at a very high level. There was some basketball rust she had to shake off. But she’s the most athletic kid I’ve ever coached on the men’s or women’s side of basketball. This gives her the ability to do things that others cannot.
“She can do anything. By the end of the year, when she sums it all up, it could be a really great year for her.”
The transition back to college life and basketball was very smooth for Prince, who is described by teammates and coaches as a selfless and caring leader who follows their example.
However, the decision to return was not so easy. Prince missed basketball and being on a team, but she was on the fence, and it took a lot of talking between Prince and McAdams to make sure it was the right fit.
Prince’s confidence in McAdams, whom she always cites as one of her favorite coaches while they spent time in New Mexico state, was a major factor in the decision.
“The trust took a while,” Prince told UAFS media the day before the season. “But it’s there. It took a while to make that decision. It was hard. But I already feel like it was worth it. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I want to take things slowly This is my final year and I’m trying my best to make an impact on the team in any way I can on and off the pitch.
Prince is one of three graduating players on this season’s roster with former New Mexico State teammate Rodrea Echols and Shaw University veteran Truth Taylor.
As with other transfers that have come with deals, McAdams wanted to ensure players took this opportunity with the attitude that it would be beneficial for everyone in the program.
It was invaluable to be standout teammates for the recovering Lions, who played a 7-18 season as a sophomore at the school for McAdams.
“Aaliyah’s playing skills and accolades in her career are important,” said McAdams. “But the impact she can have on a dressing room is very special. I knew she would bring that to our program. That’s almost more valuable than their game. This is an important transition year for us. I needed people In my program, I trust to lay a foundation. These transfers are really groundbreaking.”
McAdams noted at the school’s media day that he doesn’t take lightly the trust that graduating players are showing in him with their final season of basketball. He knows this is the final stop to make a difference as a player and improve with additional off-pitch educational opportunities.
“You never want to look back on something with regrets,” McAdams said. “I think we’re doing our best to guide these players through the stage in their lives that they’re in right now. They’ve all graduated from college and completed the traditional cycle. But all three wanted to end their careers and onto one hope last season.” and see what they can do.
“Your experience is a benchmark. You only get the experience they have by going through everything.”
It could have been very easy for Prince to call it a career after completing her fifth time and what she believed to be her final year at New Mexico state in the 2020 season. She finished her Aggies career with a team-high 12 points with four rebounds, one assist and one steal per game while shooting 45% from the field.
Her efforts earned her Western Athletic Conference second-team and WAC defensive team honors. Her Division I qualifications were exhausted after that season, but Prince had a year of Division II basketball to spare for her. Prince couldn’t be happier now that she’s reunited with her former coach and playing basketball again.
The Lions haven’t had the team success they want this year, losing the first four games of the season, including one in overtime. But Prince said she feels a turning point for the program is near.
“I’m just trying to influence the team in every way I can,” Prince said. “We can have a fantastic team if we put everything together. We’re definitely going to be explosive when we find out. These games really help us to find our way. We feel so much smoother in training so we’re trying to bring that to the games.”
UAFS sophomore guard Riley Hayes (Bentonville High) was shocked to learn Prince didn’t play basketball last season. After a few pickup basketball games earlier this year, Hayes was very impressed with Prince and her ability to make plays.
This admiration has continued throughout the season.
“She was a great addition to our team,” said Hayes. “It was something cool to watch. She brings a lot to this team. You have to guard her on the drive, which creates a lot for our perimeter. But she can also just hit it when we need it. She can rise up and score on the edge . She can get pretty much anything she wants.”
Hayes and Prince were flanked by McAdams at the team’s media day before the season. McAdams contrasted the playing experiences of the two athletes, correctly identifying Hayes’ age and joking that Prince was a 35-year veteran.
Prince isn’t quite that old yet, but she has a lot of basketball knowledge to share, which has been an enjoyable part of this journey for her.
“It’s really fun, but I wish I had more teaching skills,” Prince said. “Sometimes I just don’t know what to say. I wish I could be a better teacher and show them what I do. But it’s kind of difficult. I have knowledge that I want to pass on to these players here. I hope , I’ I help them be the best players they can be.”
It turns out that Prince, who is very humble, is passing on more knowledge than she realizes. Count Hayes is among many on the team absorbing Prince’s knowledge, having played college basketball at the Division I level in New Mexico State for five years before joining UAFS.
“Watching her and embracing the things that she’s doing on the court has really helped me,” Hayes said. “She leads with her actions and doesn’t have to lead loudly. I have benefited from following their actions and trying to incorporate these elements into my game. I know she was there and did that. It’s cool to learn from someone who’s had a lot of college basketball experience.”
McAdams was extremely pleased with Prince’s contributions with her outstanding play and always positive attitude. But what he loved most is Prince’s continued growth as a person.
With her criminal justice degree and graduate level leadership studies, Prince plans to help others by becoming a parole officer.
“I’m very proud of her investment in herself,” McAdams said. “She’s really making the most of this opportunity on and off the pitch. She’s the kind of person you really, really stand up for because she really cares about others. Aaliyah works hard towards her goals to return to adult life.
“She’s assembled and driven by what’s to come for her after basketball ends. If nothing else comes of their time here, it will all be worth it.”