Alone at Cooley Pavilion, Ariel Atkins recently hit 23 straight mid-range jumpers from every angle of the court.
Team manager Helen Tau retrieved balls and fed passes to the junior shooting guard. This was not the first time Atkins has hit a string of shots without a miss, Texas basketball coaches have said.
“Ariel never wastes a second fine-tuning her basketball skills,” Longhorns assistant George Washington said. “You’ll see her five feet from the basket, maybe 10 feet from the basket, fine-tuning her form.”
Atkins has played a critical role during the Longhorns’ 17-game winning streak. In UT’s most important wins of the season — victories over No. 20 Oklahoma and No. 2 Baylor — no one performed any better than Atkins, a 2014 McDonald’s All-American from Duncanville.
After scoring 19 points on 9-for-13 shooting from the field in an 86-68 victory over the Sooners, OU coach Sherri Coale said, “When I get my Big 12 ballot at the end of the year, I always put her immediately because she’s just such a complete basketball player.”
During Monday’s 85-78 victory over Baylor, Atkins helped lead the offense with 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field.
Atkins’ role changed before the season. For starters, she had to pick up some of the offensive load after four seniors graduated last May. Furthermore, Karen Aston told Atkins and fellow junior guard Brooke McCarty they needed to become outspoken team leaders, a tall order for players who generally don’t seek attention.
Atkins showed leadership after the Baylor game, telling her younger teammates to treat the victory with a business-as-usual approach.
“We didn’t want to get too crazy and jump on our coach,” Atkins said. “She’s kind of small and we don’t want her to get hurt.”
Washington also noted UT’s team leadership has been strong.
“If you ask the players who the team leaders are, who do they go to for words of wisdom, most people will say Ariel/Brooke,” he said. “I believe Ariel has reached a point in her career where she feels her voice can be heard.”
Atkins said the offense has become “more fluid” during the winning streak. The players are no longer “overpassing the ball like we used to.”
The winning streak started after No. 1 UConn defeated Texas 72-54 on Dec. 4. At the time, the Longhorns ranked 82nd in the nation (out of 344 teams) in offense, averaging 72 points a game. Heading into Saturday afternoon’s home game against Kansas, the Longhorns rank 36th in the country in offense with an average of 75 points a game.
Atkins has improved her offense, scoring in double figures in nine of her last 12 games. She scored a season-high 25 points in a victory over Iowa State and broke that mark a month later with 26 points in a victory over Oklahoma State.
With just five conference games remaining, the first-place Longhorns has a chance to unseat Baylor as champion of the Big 12.
Washington, though, knows it won’t be easy. Texas still has games left against Kansas, Oklahoma, Baylor, Iowa State and Kansas State.
“Baylor is still the reigning queen of the conference,” Washington said. “They’ve had a stranglehold for five or six years. It’s a huge thing for any team that goes into the Ferrell Center and comes out with a win.”
Kansas at 11-Texas, 1:30 p.m., LHN, 105.3
Series: Texas leads 23-10. The last time they played, Texas won 66-54 on Jan. 4 in Lawrence.