It all started at recess. Ariel Atkins dribbled the basketball up and down the concrete with spunk, like she always did at home, when the school’s coach approached her.
“Do you want to be on the team?” the coach asked.
Atkins told her first scout that she needed to ask her mom. After all, she was only 4. The Atkins family had no idea she would one day become the No. 4 recruit in the country.
Atkins has continued to pose a threat on the basketball court during the last 14 years. During her junior year last year, the Duncanville High School guard averaged 16.8 points, 5.5 steals and 6.1 rebounds per game while shooting 55.4 percent from the field and 49.2 percent behind the arc. She led her team, the Pantherettes, to an undefeated season that culminated in a state championship.
Texas head coach Karen Aston was impressed.
“[Atkins] is a dynamic scorer and a tremendous defender,” Aston said. “She is a player that demands so much from her teammates; another high-motor player that fits our style perfectly. [Atkins] is a throwback player who is best described as simply special.”
Her standout resume even led to an offer from Texas.
“It’s a blessing,” Atkins said. “My mom told me she was always thinking about a scholarship, but I wasn’t. I was just having fun. When I realized I could actually play basketball for four more years, I was pretty hyped.”
Coming to Texas, Atkins joins a legacy of players with dual Pantherette-Longhorn loyalties. The line of succession begins with Duncanville head coach Cathy Self-Morgan, who averaged 17.6 points and 4.1 assists during her junior year in her 1974-77 career as a Longhorn power forward. Most recently, Texas welcomed sophomore guard Empress Davenport from Duncanville.
But, as she joins the legacy, Atkins stands out. It’s not just because she led her team to a 105-game win streak, which was only snapped in a devastating championship loss this season after Atkins fouled out. And it’s not just because she upped her impressive stats to 17.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.8 steals and 3.9 assists her senior season. It’s not even because she did all this while maintaining a GPA above 3.5 and she will soon graduate in the top-8 percent of her class. It is because of Atkins’ character.
A November matchup with Manvel High School — the team that downed Duncanville 58-53 in the championship on March 1 — epitomizes Atkins’ style.
At half-time, the scrappy Manvel team led 32-18. Self-Morgan was furious.
“We don’t play fearful,” Self-Morgan said during the break. “With my finger pointing at their chest, I refused to ever let any one of my Pantherettes be afraid of anyone.”
She threw a water bottle to get the girls’ attention.
“In Pantherette ball, we play hard,” Self-Morgan said. “We play hungry. We go after the loose balls, and we score.”
Duncanville reclaimed its lead with a 25-point third quarter. Atkins and Texas signee Tasia Foman, the two players who Self-Morgan said did not show fear, acted as team role models.
“People were asking me [whether] was I scared that game — no, I wasn’t scared,” Atkins said. “That’s not cockiness. It’s just knowing what my team is capable of. We weren’t Duncanville Pantherettes the first half of the game.”
Atkins translates that mentality to every game. She said the 105-game winning streak was a blessing rather than pressure.
“If you put pressure on yourself, it means you get stressed out; you get anxious,” Atkins said. “Anxious means fear of the unknown. We have to be confident.”
But Atkins and her team tempered that confidence with a sense of reality.
“You can’t just expect a win when we walk on the floor because of the name on our jersey,” she said. “We don’t work like that.”
Walking onto the court at the McDonald’s All-American Game on Wednesday night, Atkins won’t expect a win, either. But the All-American Player of the Year will live up to her standards, playing with focus, motivation and heart.
“We’ve got to play hard, want to win and hustle,” Atkins said. “That’s what [Duncanville] represents.”
Atkins will play in the McDonald’s All-American Game at 6 p.m. Wednesday night in Chicago. The game will be televised on ESPNU.