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A DAY IN THE LIFE OF ARIEL ATKINS By James Rodriguez

In the span of four years, Ariel Atkins has risen from decorated high school athlete to college star. Her secret? Atkins is capable of being all things to all people. At times she is reserved and introspective, spending her downtime writing down goals and reflections in her journal. On the court, though, she is a vocal leader and tireless worker, the lifeblood of the Texas squad. To better understand what makes Atkins tick, TexasSports.com spent the day with her as she prepared for a game in mid-November.

The rows of seats inside the lecture hall are empty when Ariel Atkins pushes through the double doors and enters the classroom, shortly after 8:40 a.m. Her art history class won’t begin for another 20 minutes, but Atkins has a question about a short paper and doesn’t mind arriving early. She’s been up since 7 a.m., waking to the smell of coffee in the apartment she shares with her older sister north of campus, squeezing in an ice bath at the basketball practice facilities and then trekking to the art building, which sits across the street from the football stadium.

The Longhorns are set to face the UTSA Roadrunners later this evening, but the 5-foot-11-inch senior gives no indication that this day is different from any other. She wears a red and blue long sleeve flannel over a white Texas t-shirt with burnt orange script, the only part of her outfit that hints at her role on the No. 8 women’s basketball program in the nation.

In 12 hours she will be signing autographs as she exits the court, exhausted at the end of a long game and even longer day. Her schedule — a quick succession of classes, workouts, meetings and pre- and post-game activities —allows little time for relaxation. She will be early to all of it.

As Atkins settles into her seat, her professor breaks the silence.

“I heard on the radio that you guys won big the other night. Like, really big.”

She’s referring to a recent win over McNeese State in which Atkins was electric. The senior guard shot a perfect 3-for-3 from three-point range, recorded seven rebounds and led the team with 23 points to surpass the 1,000 career points mark as the Longhorns steamrolled the Cowgirls, 100-34.

Atkins grins sheepishly.

“Yeah.”

“Do you feel bad at all?” the professor asks, clearly feeling sympathy for the outmatched opponents.

Atkins maintains her smile, but her answer betrays a competitive edge that would surely earn a nod of approval from head coach Karen Aston.

“No,” she replies without hesitation. “You can’t. They came here to play. It’s either us or them to the coaches.”

The Longhorns are widely considered to be one of the top teams in the nation, and a legitimate contender for the national championship. Atkins has played a key role in Texas’ return to the ranks of powerhouse programs across the nation, helping the Longhorns to two Sweet Sixteen finishes and one Elite Eight finish during her time on campus. But at this early point in the season, when the Longhorns have yet to face the steep competition that awaits them in conference play, the pre-season rankings and predictions remain mostly speculation. Atkins is quick to point this out. The process of fulfilling those lofty expectations starts with beating teams like McNeese State.

“With preseason stuff, people are voting because they think you can do this,” Atkins says later. “It’s not something that you’ve done yet. So you can’t hang your hat on that stuff at all.”

To realize their postseason dreams, the Longhorns will rely heavily on Atkins, a senior who has emerged as a vocal leader in the past two years. As she sets her sights on the rest of the season and the pro career that awaits her after graduation, Atkins continues to reflect on her experience at a school like Texas, where top-tier academics meet big-time athletics. Atkins thrives at that intersection. In her free time she prefers to take time to herself, listening to music and filling journals with her daily musings. But on the court she is the lifeblood of the team, yelling encouragement and guiding younger players. A day spent with her in mid-November provides a glimpse into her life, when the start of the season presents one last opportunity for Atkins to cement her legacy at Texas.

9 a.m.

As the start of class approaches, other bleary-eyed students saunter into the classroom. Seated in the front row with a pair of earbuds draped around her neck, Atkins blends into the crowd. Still, she remains acutely aware of the microscope under which she and other athletes at Texas go about their days. She talks candidly about this fact of life as she waits for class to begin.

“I think it’s cool,” Atkins says. “Coming to UT, it’s a big school, so you kind of expect that kind of thing. You have a big name and big franchise. If you want to be a part of that, you’re going to represent it in some kind of fashion without even trying to.”

Here in the darkened lecture hall, it seems as if Atkins couldn’t be farther from the bright lights of the Frank Erwin Center that await her this evening. But with a professional career in mind, Atkins constantly thinks about her brand: how she carries herself, the kinds of things she says to the media, how she interacts with fans.

“The whole branding thing, you have to think about it, especially if you want to do what I want to do. It’s something that you have to think about, just knowing that you’re always being watched.”

Atkins got a taste of the attention even before she became a Longhorn. She arrived on campus in the summer of 2014 as a vaunted high school athlete from Duncanville, a suburb of Dallas. A consensus All-American, Gatorade Women’s Basketball Player of the Year and the No. 1-ranked guard in her recruiting class, according to ESPN, Atkins led basketball powerhouse Duncanville High to back-to-back state titles in 2012 and 2013.

The Texas program was in the midst of an upswing when Atkins committed the summer before her senior year. In her second season at the helm, Aston coached the Longhorns to a third place finish in the Big 12 — their best conference finish since 2005 — and their first win in the NCAA tournament since 2008. Still, Texas had yet to reclaim its spot among the nation’s elite. The commitments of Atkins and Brooke McCarty, the No. 6 guard in the nation according to ESPN, marked a huge recruiting win for Texas. Their added presence had the potential to change the trajectory of the program.

Atkins was drawn to the opportunities — and expectations — at a school like Texas.

“It’s all serious. It’s business,” Atkins says. “And our coach reminds us of that all the time. We signed our National Letters of Intent to get a great education, graduate and perform every day. And that’s in the classroom and on the court. You hear that all the time. It’s a constant reminder.”

As a freshman, Atkins originally planned to enroll in pre-med classes, or major in psychology. She opted instead for a major in sport management and a minor in business, a course plan that she said better mirrored her experiences out of the classroom as a student-athlete.

“Every single one of my sport management classes I’ve loved” Atkins says. “That’s why I love my major so much. The classes are so fun. They’re all just real world application, and that’s always fun.

“I go to class, and then I go to practice, or I go to class and then we have the media. It’s just cool to see it in action after they’ve already talked about it.”

This morning, though, her class has almost nothing to do with sports or business. Black and white images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera flash across the screen as the professor lectures on modern Mexican art. After class, Ariel admits this isn’t her favorite part of the semester. That section came earlier, when the class covered the work of Italian masters such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. It was an especially relevant section for Atkins, who in August traveled to Italy with her teammates to compete in a series of exhibition games. In preparation for the trip, the team took a class on Italian culture and history, and visited historic sites, including the Sistine Chapel and the Trevi Fountain, once they arrived.

Before the summer began, Atkins had never traveled overseas. By the end of August, she was a seasoned globetrotter. She joined the Longhorns in Italy after playing in Tokyo with the USA U23 Women's National Team, one of 12 players to make the squad. Atkins started all three games of the tournament, helping the USA to capture the tournament championship over Canada, Australia and Japan. In between Tokyo and Italy, she stopped off in Paris.

“The summer was just craziness,” Atkins says as she shakes her head.

10 a.m.

Atkins’ next class, Personal and Family Finance, is just as pragmatic as it sounds. Today’s class will cover buying insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Atkins greets McCarty as she walks in and takes a seat in the first row.

She flips to a spot in her notebook where’s she’s written “Family Over Everything” in curling script across an entire page. The team has adopted those words as its motto for the season, but it’s also an apt description of Atkins’ own approach to family. Atkins shares her apartment with her 26-year-old sister, Jessica, who teaches middle school in Round Rock. Their two-bedroom apartment serves as a home base for the rest of the family on their frequent trips to Austin. In addition to Jessica, Atkins also has a younger brother, BJ, who is 18. Her mother, LaShonda, will be at the game tonight. Her father, Byron, will be at work, but he often makes the Sunday home contests, driving six hours round trip from Duncanville to see his daughter play.

“My family is my backbone,” Atkins says. “I love being around them. Every time I see them, it just brings a whole other level of happiness and joy.”

The basketball team, she says, is a different type of family. The world of elite basketball is relatively small, and she knew several of the players before she even stepped on campus. She played briefly on AAU teams with McCarty and Chastity Patterson, a freshman point guard on the team who was ranked the No. 4 player in the 2017 class. She got to know Jada Underwood, a sophomore guard/forward, through a friendship with Underwood’s cousin. She’s gone to church with sophomore Joyner Holmes since the two were young, a practice that they continue today. And although she lost to junior Jordan Hosey in the state championship during high school, the two have grown close since (“she’s someone you just can’t not like,” Atkins says).

“Can they accept you for what you are and who you are, and do they want you to be better? I think that’s what family entails, and that’s what we do,” Atkins says. “They won’t let you fail at all costs. They want you to be a better person at all times. That’s what our culture is.”

As the 50-minute session ends, the professor announces they’ll be covering investing in the next class. Atkins lights up at the news.

“This is what I’ve been waiting for,” she says.

11 a.m.

Atkins joins McCarty as they walk toward the football stadium, which houses the Texas Athletics Nutrition Center, or TANC. The two discuss their upcoming trip to Las Vegas over the Thanksgiving break, where they’re scheduled to face LSU and Washington as part of the South Point Shootout (spoiler alert: they’ll win both). Atkins wonders aloud what it will be like to walk along the Vegas Strip.

At lunch, Atkins loads her plate with fish, chili macaroni and cheese, broccoli, a biscuit and carrots. Across the room, a television plays ESPN. Atkins winces as two football players collide onscreen.

Atkins is no stranger to injuries. She missed eight games in December and January of her freshman year with an ankle injury. Despite the midseason setback, Atkins led the team in scoring during conference play and went on to earn a spot on the All-Big 12 Freshman Team. She underwent surgery after the season, causing her to miss an additional nine games at the start of her sophomore campaign.

Her second season at Texas was stellar by most standards: she led the team in field goal percentage, made the All-Big 12 Second Team and played in all four NCAA tournament games en route to the Longhorns’ first Elite Eight appearance since 2003. But she faced a mental battle in her return to the court. Back then, she was superstitious; if someone got taped before her or interrupted her pregame routine, she was thrown off. That’s no longer the case. A large part of college for Atkins has been learning the art of letting go: focusing on what she can control, and letting the rest fall where it may. Coach Aston said as much after Atkins reached 1,000 career points against McNeese State.

“I am reminding her that sometimes you have to give back to yourself in the sense that there are things in the game that you are not going to be able to control, but what she can control is her own individual effort and reward herself from the work that she puts in on a regular basis,” Aston said. “She has the ability to do so many things and impact the game in so many ways, but sometimes her worrying and concern for everyone else gets in the way of that. I think that she can do all of it.”

Across Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, images of former All-Americans line the walls of the newly renovated courts inside the Denton A. Cooley Pavilion, where the Longhorn basketball teams practice. The last women’s player to earn that distinction was Tiffany Jackson-Jones in 2005. Next to the shot of Jackson-Jones hangs another banner, this one with a silhouette of a player and the question “Who’s Next?” It’s a not-so-subtle reminder for Atkins, whom many within the program think could be the next Longhorn to earn a spot on the wall. But she shrugs off the suggestion that the pursuit of the award will be a driving force for her this season. Such a quest makes for a good storyline, perhaps, but not a healthy mindset for Atkins.

“I know people wish I would think that way, but my mind does not work that way,” Atkins says. “I feel like if it did, it would be unnecessary stress. I’m not good when I think too much. I just need to be relaxed.”

Atkins returned for her junior season fully healthy, earning All-Big 12 First Team honors. After arguably the hardest non-conference schedule in the country — a slate that featured four teams in the top 15, including No. 3 South Carolina and No. 2 Connecticut — the Longhorns began their conference play on a red-hot win streak. In the span of a week, they defeated No. 2 Baylor and No. 5 Florida State, and appeared poised to claim the Big 12 title. But losses to Oklahoma, Baylor and Iowa State followed. Texas went on to finish with a Sweet 16 appearance.

1 p.m.

After catching a quick nap and doing some homework, Atkins arrives at the Erwin Center early before the team shootaround. She likes this lull before the games, when the arena is nearly empty. It’s peaceful, she says.

Ariel leans forward in a chair and dribbles between her legs as she waits for assistant coach Tina Thompson to arrive and lead her through a personalized pregame workout. From her seat courtside, Atkins barks advice to freshman Destiny Littleton as the sharp-shooting newcomer practices three-pointers. Atkins served as Littleton’s host back when she was a recruit, and the two developed a connection. Atkins is stern now, emulating a big sister.

“After you make that first shot, you get lazy,” Atkins points out.

She sympathizes with the freshmen as they begin their collegiate careers in the pressure cooker that is major collegiate athletics. She laughs now as she recalls life during that first year.

“It feels like the world is ending with every mistake you make,” Atkins says. “It’s like, ‘Everybody doesn’t like me, nobody wants me to succeed.’ In a sense, you feel like, ‘Everybody’s out to get me.’ It’s like, no, they just want you to get better, they just want to help you. You don’t see that when you’re in it.”

With her seniority, Atkins is enjoying taking this freshman class under her wing.

“It’s definitely fun, especially with this freshman class,” Atkins says. “Being a senior and seeing the freshmen is different than being a sophomore or junior and seeing the freshmen.”

Atkins remains talkative when Thompson arrives, chatting animatedly as the two begin Atkins’ pregame shooting routine. As Atkins moves to the perimeter, she retreats to her quieter self, her face a mask of concentration.

When the team shootaround begins an hour later, Atkins is one of the loudest players on the court. It’s common knowledge on the team that it’s impossible to outwork Atkins. She proves that now.

“Here we go!” she yells as the team sprints down the court. “Come on! Here we go!”

3:30 p.m.

After the team shootaround, Atkins heads to the training room for a brief treatment before stealing another nap. She arrives at 3:30 p.m. for the team dinner dressed in a gray Team USA sweatshirt, and takes a seat next to assistant coach George Washington.

For a college student, Atkins is incredibly diligent. She keeps meticulous track of her goals in the journals that she stacks in her bedroom. Over dinner, she recalls a time when her sister paid for one of Ariel’s meals. The next day, Atkins left the money to pay her back in an envelope with a handwritten note attached.

Jessica was incredulous. “What did you put it in an envelope for? Why didn’t you just hand it to me?”

“I wanted you to know what it was for!” Atkins replied at the time.

“My family thinks I’m crazy,” Atkins shrugs after telling the story.

Washington has a different word for it.

“She’s very serious about everything she does,” he says.

Afterward, Atkins returns to the locker room to change and prepare for the game. The classes, the homework, the pre-game treatment sessions; all of these are in the rearview mirror. Finally, it is time to play.

7 p.m.

Before the game, Atkins is honored with a commemorative basketball to honor her 1,000 career points milestone. She poses for the camera alongside Coach Aston before quickly joining her teammates on the bench.

On the first play of the game for Texas, Atkins gets the ball just behind the arc and pauses as if she’s about to take a shot. Instead, she feeds the ball to McCarty, who drains the three. A few minutes later, McCarty returns the favor, passing the ball inside to Atkins for an easy layup.

Atkins does it all in a convincing 120-70 win for the Longhorns. She contributes 13 points from all over the floor, collects three steals and dishes out three assists. When she exits the game in garbage time, she remains on her feet, yelling encouragement from the sidelines.

9 p.m.

After the game, crowds of fans line up to get autographs. A young girl timidly approaches Atkins and produces a poster for her to sign.

“We’ll see you in Las Vegas,” her mother proudly says to Atkins. “We’re flying out today.”

Atkins leans down. “What’s your name?” she asks.

“Aria.”

“That’s a pretty name,” Atkins says as she hugs her.

A crowd of fans has gathered around Atkins now, clutching posters, t-shirts and even the odd shoe for her to sign. Atkins catches up with a few of the girls she recognizes from the annual basketball camp the Longhorns host.

I comment on the sheer number of fans seeking a few seconds with her. Atkins nods in agreement, a look of disbelief on her face.

“I love it though,” she says.

Eventually, it’s time for Atkins and her teammates to exit the court. As she walks up the tunnel back to Cooley Pavilion, Atkins spots assistant coach Jamie Carey, herself a standout former Texas basketball player who was the starting point guard for the team’s 2003 Final Four run.

“Coach Jamie,” she calls. “You gonna have some film for me after this game?”

With the confirmation from Carey, Atkins is satisfied. Tomorrow, Saturday, is an off day. She may even sleep until 7:15 a.m.

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