NCAA Tournament

Photo Credit: Anthony Mireles | Daily Texan Staff

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Ariel Atkins gave her all to the Longhorns’ program, even down to the last second.

The senior guard walked off the court of the Sprint Center after Friday’s season-ending loss to 3-seeded UCLA in the NCAA Tournament, knowing it was the last time she’d don the burnt orange and white she’d worn with such pride over the past four years.

The journey concluded as Texas fell, 84-75, in a game that was an uphill battle the whole way through.

The Bruins outplayed the Longhorns from the opening tip, employing a full-court press that forced seven Texas turnovers in the first quarter. Even when they could break the press, the Longhorns couldn’t buy a basket as they shot an abysmal 5-for-16. UCLA capitalized on the sluggish start, claiming a 19-11 lead at the end of the first.

“We were a little uncharacteristic with the basketball,” Texas head coach Karen Aston said. “We just had inopportune turnovers, obviously way too many, (early on). You have to give UCLA a lot of credit.”

That lead ballooned to 11 for the Bruins in the second quarter with 3:28 remaining. Every attempt by Texas to chip away at the lead was answered by a UCLA run as the Bruins took a 39-31 advantage into the half.

Texas retreated to its locker room, just two quarters away from seeing its season come to an abrupt end. But Atkins held her head high as she prepared to come back out for the start of the second half.

She wasn’t going down without a fight.

Atkins set the tone in the third quarter, starting it off with a corner three that ignited the Longhorn bench. The senior guard then delivered on the defensive end, stealing the ball and dishing a no-look assist to junior forward Jatarie White on the fastbreak.

Texas rallied behind its senior leader, igniting a 14-3 run to claim a 45-42 lead with 6:50 remaining in the third — its first lead of the game.

“Our message at halftime was to stick to our game,” Atkins said. “We hadn’t played our type of basketball in the first half, but I feel like in the third quarter we found a flow.”

But UCLA held its composure, responding with a back-breaking 17-4 run to take a commanding 59-49 lead entering the final quarter of play.

Desperate to keep her season — and her career — alive, Atkins kept fighting.

The 5-foot-11 guard kicked off the final quarter by sinking a contested layup, trimming the lead to eight. She found her way into the paint once more on the following possession, snagging an offensive board and finishing from close range.

Once again the Bruins didn’t budge, extending the lead back to double digits thanks to UCLA’s Jordin Canada. The Longhorns had no answer for the senior guard as she torched Texas for 20 points in the second half.

“In the second half, (Canada) just decided to take over,” senior guard Brooke McCarty said. “When she gets going, it’s going to be a tough matchup. She really managed the game well.”

With just eight seconds remaining in the game, UCLA secured the final rebound and began to dribble the clock out. Atkins full-court pressed until the buzzer sounded.

Atkins totaled 11 points in the final quarter, finishing with a team-high 20 points to go along with seven rebounds in the loss.

The heartbreaking defeat marked the final chapter for a player who led the Longhorns to four straight Sweet 16 appearances, establishing a standard for the program for years to come.

“I’m extremely blessed to have had this opportunity,” Atkins said. “God opened up a lot of doors for me since I’ve been here. Now the stage is set for our younger players to take off. They know what they need to do.”

Photo Credit: Angela Wang | Daily Texan Staff

No. 2-seeded Texas cruised to an 83-54 victory over No. 15-seeded Maine on Saturday evening in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With the win, the Longhorns will take on No. 7-seeded Arizona State on Monday at 8 p.m.

Here are four takeaways from Saturday’s game:

Longhorns box out

Texas used every inch of its reach advantage to build a 43-12 advantage on the boards. Maine never grabbed more than two rebounds in a single quarter.

Sophomore guard Blanca Millan secured the first board of the game for the Black Bears at the 2:17 mark in the first quarter. By the end of the quarter, sophomore forward Joyner Holmes had more rebounds (five) than Maine’s entire team (two).

Texas head coach Karen Aston emphasized to her team before the game how important winning the rebounding battle would be.

“That was one of the things that we actually had on the (team’s) board,” junior guard Lashann Higgs said. “It was like ‘rebound,’ with an exclamation mark, so we knew exactly what we tried to do was rebound.”

Brooke McCarty takes it easy

Brooke McCarty tied with Holmes for a team-high seven rebounds. But she didn’t show the same aggression on offense.

The senior guard didn’t take a shot until late in the second quarter. McCarty knocked down a trey off a dime from junior forward Olamide Aborowa with four seconds left in the half. She didn’t take her next shot until the 7:47 mark in the fourth quarter.

McCarty finished the game with seven points on 2-of-3 shooting and two assists. Aston was still pleased with the point guard’s performance, especially on the boards.

“I love point guards that rebound,” Aston said. “She's discovered ways to maneuver and pick up the loose ones when people box out. But I do love point guards that rebound, because we like to transition and it obviously starts your transition game if your point guard already has the ball in her hands.”

Ariel Atkins is made for March

Senior guard Ariel Atkins had much more success on offense. She hunted for open looks and knocked them down at every turn. She drained a triple from the right corner in Texas’ first possession of the game and never looked back.

Atkins finished the game with 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including 2-of-3 from deep. She was just as effective in everything else, racking up four rebounds, four assists and two steals. She hopes the performance carries over moving forward in the NCAA Tournament.

“I think it gives us a good amount of confidence,” Atkins said. “I think the confidence comes from knowing what we did. We focused on their tendencies and what they did well. And I think we actually used our preparation and listened to our coaches and we stuck with the game plan. I think that's where the confidence comes from.”

So much for trimming the rotation

Aston knows she’ll need to cut down on her bench minutes at some point during the NCAA Tournament. But as long as her team can build a lead, as it did against Maine, she’s happy to give her starters a rest.

“We were able, luckily, in the Big 12 Tournament to play a lot of people because we did have a lead in both games where we were able to do that,” Aston said at Texas’ pregame press conference on Friday. “I mean, the rotation trims in tournament play. I think that's a realistic statement. I think the bigger key is just getting everybody prepared, even if it's a minute or two.”

Texas led 23-8 by the end of the first quarter, and Aston turned to her substitutes. The bench players combined for 128 minutes and 19 points. Each player was on the floor for at least 12 minutes.

“You just don't ever know when your number's going to get called in NCAA Tournament play,” Aston said after the game. “So I think it was very good for everyone to get some playing time and get their feet wet with the NCAA Tournament.”

Photo Credit: Angela Wang | Daily Texan Staff

Ariel Atkins jogged onto the court at the Frank Erwin Center on Saturday determined to survive.

For four years the senior guard had given the Texas program everything she had. Now she found herself in what could be the final chapter of her collegiate career, taking on 15-seeded Maine in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Saturday would not be the end, though, as Atkins willed the Longhorns to a statement 83-54 win in a game that was over from the jump.

“I was very pleased with how we started the game,” Texas head coach Karen Aston said. “I thought that our team was very locked in. We paid attention to detail, shot the ball well and did a lot of things really sharply.”

Atkins set the tone in the opening quarter, sinking an uncontested three from the corner on Texas’ first possession. It took just two minutes for her to get the ball behind the arc again — this time drilling the long-range bomb right in front of an outstretched Maine defender.

But Atkins wasn’t finished. The Duncanville, Texas, native soared to the rim among the bigs with 4:34 left, snagging an offensive rebound and converting on the easy putback to give Texas a 14-6 lead.

Maine head coach Amy Vachon burned the Black Bears’ first timeout shortly afterward, desperate to get her team back on track.

It didn’t work. The Longhorns closed the quarter on a 9-0 run to take a commanding 23-8 lead.

“We definitely knew that we needed to be focused,” Atkins said. “We knew what (Maine) was capable of doing, so that was important for us (early on).”

Texas fed off Atkins’ intensity, opening up a 56-24 lead by the midway point of the third quarter. Atkins kept attacking, pulling up on a fastbreak and draining a shot from the free throw line.

The senior called for the ball once again on the following possession, drifting to the corner and hitting on a mid-range jumper to give the Longhorns a 60-26 advantage with 4:44 to go in the third.

Atkins’ night came to a close with 4:53 left in the fourth quarter as Aston subbed out her starters. The Longhorns finished the game with ease.

Atkins totaled 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting in the victory. Junior forward Jatarie White also had a strong outing, posting a game-high 17 points in 20 minutes.

The win is a strong start to the tournament for a Texas team that enters the postseason clicking on all cylinders.

“We definitely are playing as more of a team,” junior guard Lashann Higgs said. “That’s something that we’ve been working on throughout the season. It’s been a fun year.”

The road to Texas’ first Final Four appearance since 2003 continues on Monday as the Longhorns host 7-seeded Arizona State at 8 p.m. The Sun Devils enter the second round matchup fresh off a 73-62 victory over 10-seeded Nebraska on Saturday.

Although the game will mark Atkins’ final outing in front of the fans at the Frank Erwin Center, the senior hopes it won’t be her last time in burnt orange.

All she has to do is survive.

“They’ve been the best fans that I’ve ever been around,” Atkins said. “I’m just so thankful for this program and everything it’s done for me.”

Photo Credit: Angela Wang | Daily Texan Staff

After a suspenseful wait, the Texas Longhorns (19–14) avoided the First Four and drew a No. 10 seed in the South Regional of the NCAA Tournament.

Texas’ first-round opponent will be the No. 7 seed Nevada Wolf Pack (27–7) — the Mountain West regular season champions. The Longhorns will play Nevada on Friday in Nashville. The winner will face the team that advances out of the No. 2 seed Cincinnati-No. 15 seed Georgia State matchup.

Texas, which earned its first Tournament appearance since 2016, claimed one of seven Big 12 at-large bids in the field of 68 after advancing to the second round of the conference tournament. The Longhorns look to win their first NCAA Tournament game since 2014, when Cameron Ridley’s layup lifted then-head coach Rick Barnes’ team over Arizona State at the buzzer.