As seniors McCarty and Atkins have risen, so has Texas

Brooke McCarty runs the fast break. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.
Brooke McCarty runs the fast break. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.

The direct Twitter message flashed across Brooke McCarty’s iPhone four years ago.

She was a senior in high school, the No. 6 guard in the country, and still undecided about where she wanted to play college basketball. She had narrowed her choices to LSU and Texas.

Then came the message on Twitter from the top-ranked guard in the nation: Ariel Atkins, who was also unsure of where she wanted to go to college, but was considering Texas.

“Hi, I’m Ariel,” the message said. “Are you thinking about going to Texas?”

McCarty had never met Atkins. But she knew Atkins was someone she would like to play with next.

“I’m thinking about it,” McCarty replied.

Four years later, McCarty and Atkins are gearing up for their senior years as Longhorns. Ever since they stepped foot on campus, in the fall of 2014, they have helped push Texas back into national contention. This is their final year to win a national championship – a feat the program hasn’t accomplished since 1986.

McCarty and Atkins helped the team reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament their freshman and junior years and the Elite Eight their sophomore year. Last season the Longhorns also posted a 19-game winning streak – the 10th longest streak in program history. As a result, there is an excitement around women’s basketball that hasn’t been there in the last 25 years. Texas is again considered among the national powerhouses of the hoops world, along with South Carolina, Connecticut, Stanford and Notre Dame.

McCarty said the team has grown from the inside out.

“We’ve set a culture here and so I think that aspect of the program has grown,” McCarty said. “We’re expected to do good every year, so now we have something that we know we have a target on our back. We know that people are talking about Texas now.”

This season could be Texas’ best during the McCarty and Atkins era in Austin. Because just as the team has improved, so have the two star guards.

Ariel Atkins works on shooting. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.
Ariel Atkins works on shooting. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.

Atkins jumped from 9.7 points per game her freshman year to 12.8 points her junior year. Her steals per game rose from 1.26 to two in that span.

McCarty doubled her scoring average from her freshman year to her junior year – when she became the first Texas player to win Big 12 Conference Player of the Year.

“Brooke and Ariel, I think, kind of set the tone for the future, I think, with what kind of people we were going to recruit,” head coach Karen Aston said.

Aston was Texas’ new head coach when she started recruiting them. She knew Texas needed both a point guard for the future and a dynamic playmaker.

McCarty and Atkins fit those needs.

Both of them committed to the Longhorns not long after their message exchange. They were, Aston said, taking a leap of faith, as she was in her first year coaching the program at the time, which was in the midst of change. And Texas wasn’t at the level of some of the schools pursing McCarty and Atkins.

“A lot of people before I got here were like ‘Why are you going to Texas?’” McCarty said.

The previous five seasons, Texas had been eliminated in the first round of the NCAA tournament three times, missed it one year, and, in Aston’s first year, eliminated in the second round. But that didn’t sway Atkins and McCarty.

“You can kind of foresee things coming,” Atkins said. “You take a leap of faith and you see that there’s things that can be in place and you hope to be someone that can help put them in place.”

Both of them endured their share of hardships their first two years.

Atkins had a good freshman year: She led the team in scoring during conference play. She was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman Team. She scored a team-high 11 points in the Longhorns’ season-ending loss to Connecticut.

But an ankle injury during practice that December forced Atkins to miss eight games, interrupting her rhythm. She had ankle surgery after the season, which caused her to miss the first nine games of her sophomore season.

She struggled when she returned.

She became inconsistent, she said, in rebounding and scoring. Sometimes she tried to focus so much on rebounding that she had problems actually grabbing a rebound. Other times she tried so hard to score that she couldn’t hit a shot. She had always been a scorer, but she was trying too hard.

“It’s not just one person’s job to do one thing, and I think once I kind of just took that load off my back it was easier for me to just be a basketball player on the team,” Atkins said.

McCarty’s experience was different.

“I was, kind of like, slapped in the face,” she said. “I was just blind-sided by everything.”

Having never been away from home, and being really close to her mother and younger brother, McCarty felt really homesick her freshman year, sometimes crying multiple times a week and calling her mom, who was three hours away in League City, to come pick her up.

That eventually affected her play on the court. Basketball was always an outlet for her, but in those moments, the court at Denton A. Cooley Pavilion didn’t help her escape.

“It got to a point where I wasn’t having fun,” McCarty said. “I guess being a baby, but at the same time I wasn’t having fun doing what I came here to do.”

Coach Karen Aston makes a point at a break in play. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.
Coach Karen Aston makes a point at a break in play. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.

“I was caught off guard that she was so homesick and that she dealt with some of the early struggles that she did just kind of finding herself,” Aston said.

Time and talking about her feelings with her teammates helped her cope, and she still made the Big 12 All-Freshman team, but she sometimes didn’t feel like she was entirely focused. She wanted to change that for her sophomore year.

“I knew I could bring more to the team and I knew I could do more,” McCarty said. “I was coming to the gym but I was not there sometimes.”

Over the offseason she increased her training time, sometimes doing two-a-day workouts. When her sophomore season started, she felt more comfortable with being away from her family. She led the team in points, was named to the All-Big 12 First Team, and started 35 games.

Meanwhile, Atkins was named to the All-Big 12 Second-Team, and was third in scoring. That season, Texas made it to the Elite Eight for the first time in 13 years, but lost to Connecticut – the eventual national champion.

In their junior year, McCarty and Atkins started every game they played and ranked first and second on the team in scoring, respectively. This time, both of them made the All-Big 12 First Team. Texas started the season 2-4. Then they won 19 in a row.

Texas made it back to the Sweet 16, but lost again – this time to Stanford.

Heading into their senior seasons, the excitement is palpable.

“I think they’re very determined for our team to end up successful,” Aston said. “Brooke and Ariel are going to be the best they can be. I never question that at all.”

The Longhorns come together at the end of practice. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.
The Longhorns come together at the end of practice. Photo courtesy of Texas Athletics.

Part of their job this season will be to serve as leaders and mentors to younger players such as juniors Alecia Sutton and Lashann Higgs, and freshman Chasity Patterson – the No. 1 point guard in the class of 2017, according to ESPNW.

“They’ve worked day in, day out to get this program back to where it needs to be,” Higgs said. “You can see it with their level of intensity they have in the weight room, on the practice court and in the game.”

Both of them are happy where Texas is headed. It happened faster than they expected and it all started with a direct message on Twitter, a little more than four years ago.

“I didn’t expect it to happen the way that it was, but it has,” McCarty said. “It’s pretty cool, just to know that you’re a part of that era that brought Texas back to what it used to be.”