March 12, 2018
A security guard in a bright yellow jacket opens the double doors of the Lone Star Room of the Frank Erwin Center. He’s three minutes early.
One hundred or so fans decked out in burnt orange shirts, shoes, hats and jackets file in from the Red River Street entrance.
“Our fans, they’re an ecstatic crowd,” senior guard Ariel Atkins says. “They’re always there for us, no matter what goes down during the season.”
A line immediately forms to the right of the room where the crowd picks up ham and turkey finger sandwiches, pineapple, baby carrots and ranch, a poster featuring the team’s three seniors, Atkins, Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau and Brooke McCarty — and a blank bracket.
Everyone else scrambles to find a seat. They all want the best view of the projector screen at the front of the room.
ESPN personalities Rece Davis and Jalen Rose fill the screen at the moment, analyzing the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. In a half hour, they’ll be replaced by Andy Landers, Rebecca Lobo and Maria Taylor to reveal the women’s tourney.
The Longhorns arrive, along with Hook’Em. The fans clap as they walk in.
The players and coaches disperse throughout the room, greeting their supporters. Sophomores Alecia ‘Sug’ Sutton and Joyner Holmes get in line for the refreshments, and dance to “Pray for Me” by The Weeknd featuring Kendrick Lamar while they wait. The older players know better.
Associate head coach Tina Thompson breaks out a bag of nuts she brought with her. Caron-Goudreau and juniors Lashann Higgs and Jatarie White gravitate toward her, waiting to be fed like baby birds. Higgs puts her nose to the bag, inhales, then takes one out and tosses it in her mouth. She nods her head in satisfaction.
The team plops down in front of the screen. Hook’Em sits on the floor with his legs crossed. Atkins, Caron-Goudreau, Higgs, senior Brooke McCarty and head coach Karen Aston share a couch behind him with barely enough room to breathe between them. The rest of the players and assistant coaches each reside in cushioned armchairs in the next row. The sport information directors, managers, trainers and support staff sit in the next row in the same cushioned, stackable chairs as the fans behind them.
Every eye is glued to the screen. They’re ready.
“Every year has been an exciting experience,” McCarty says. “Like, you think you’re done after the tournament, but no, you’ve got more to play.”
The selection show starts right on schedule. Taylor welcomes the viewers and introduces her co-hosts.
UConn is the first team revealed. The crowd holds its breath. The Huskies are an undefeated No. 1, the top seed overall. With six losses, there’s a chance the Longhorns could be the lowest ranked No. 2 seed.
They aren’t. The room releases a collective sigh of relief as South Carolina is named the No. 2 seed of the Albany Regional. The fans cheer as Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee drive past a herd of Longhorns in a commercial for Capital One.
One region down, three to go.
The show returns from commercial and jumps straight into highlight videos of Notre Dame. The fans lick their chops. The Fighting Irish might be the easiest No. 1 seed. Four of their players are sideline with torn ACLs.
They clap for No. 12 seed Oklahoma, a fellow Big 12 school who was squarely on the tournament bubble. They boo at No. 4 seed Texas A&M who was not.
Oregon is the No. 2 seed of the Spokane Regional. Hook’Em grows restless. He uncrosses his legs and sprawls out on the ground. He’s tired of waiting.
Few people care that Louisville is the top seed of the Lexington regional. They just want to know who Texas’ first opponent will be.
A mix of cheers and boos fill the room when Baylor comes off the board as the No. 2 seed. The Longhorns lost to the Bears three times this season. McCarty throws her head back cackling as the ESPN plays clips of Baylor freshman guard Alexis Morris scoring all over her.
Texas, Mississippi State and UCLA are the top three remaining teams. Aston feels confident heading into the final regional.
“I think I had it figured out,” Aston says. “At that point I knew that we were sort of in that last pod.”
Hook’Em sits back up as Taylor dives into the Kansas City Regional. The Bulldogs are the top seed. The crowd holds its breath again.
UCLA only has seven losses and was the only team who beat Baylor this season, something the Longhorns couldn’t do in three tries. There’s a chance the Bruins could sneak their way up to the No. 2 seed.
The No. 3 seed is revealed. UCLA will play No. 14 American. The room muffles its excitement.
Texas finally hears its name. The No. 2 seed will host the first two rounds of the tournament and play No. 15 Maine on Saturday at 5 p.m.
The fans let out a roar. Hook’Em raises his horns. The team acts like it’s been there before — mostly.
Freshman Rellah Boothe is the first player on her feet, followed by fellow freshmen Destiny Littleton and Chasity Patterson, who record the moment on their Snapchat stories. None of the other players stand.
Assistant coach George Washington rises halfway up, turns his head to his left, sees no one else standing and quickly sits back down.
The Longhorns wait until ESPN shows their highlights and reaction video before turning the sound off. Aston stands up and takes a microphone. She thanks the fans for their support, at the party and throughout the season. Higgs does the same.
“OK, we have a little, um — can we do The Eyes of Texas?” Aston asks. “The freshmen love to lead this song on Selection Monday. Y’all come on up. Rellah, you want the mic?”
Boothe and the rest of the team join her.
“Yes ma’am,” Boothe responded.
Boothe was off key and a beat off rhythm, but made it through the song just as she made it through the regular season.
“I’m not sure (the freshmen) know all year long what we’re really doing,” Aston says. “This might be the defining moment for the freshmen to somewhat understand ‘What are we here for?’ and ‘What is the purpose of all of this?’ It’s exciting to see them go through this for the first time.”
It’s just as exciting for the older players.
“Words can’t explain how excited I am about this.” Atkins says. “Fourth year in the NCAA Tournament. As a kid, you dream about these moments. Been watching it ever since I can remember. So, just being in the tournament every year, it’s just a blessing.”
Everyone filters out of the room. They have to prepare for Saturday.