All-Access: Inside the Texas trip to Tennessee

Texas senior guard Ariel Atkins guards Tennessee's Jaime Nared on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Texas senior guard Ariel Atkins guards Tennessee's Jaime Nared on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena. /
1 of 3

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Ariel Atkins strolled past the holiday parties taking place in the ballrooms and made her way to a private dining room at the Crowne Plaza.

The Texas women’s basketball team had just arrived in Knoxville to play Tennessee the following afternoon in a nationally-televised showdown between unbeatens.

As music pulsated from within the nearby walls, Atkins grabbed a plate and made her way through the buffet line of chicken, coleslaw, corn on the cob, salad and rolls.

The senior guard has prepared for many big games in her decorated career, and doesn’t get tangled in superstitions. There are too many variables on road trips to worry about eating the same meal or sitting in the same seat every time.

Atkins prefers to roll with whatever is thrown her way and appreciate the challenge every unique atmosphere presents.

Someone asked me in an interview the other day who you look forward to playing most at Tennessee, and I was like, ‘Tennessee. The entire place,’” Atkins said as a light snow dusted the street outside. “People love Tennessee women’s basketball. It is so much fun to be in an environment where people are passionate about women’s basketball. There are not a lot of environments like this. It’s just amazing.”

Texas provided The Summitt with an all-access look at how the Longhorns prepared for their game against Tennessee once they landed in Knoxville on their charter flight.

From the team meal the night before to the pregame speech in the locker room to the post-game reflections, Texas gave a window into its program’s dynamics.

The Longhorns arrived with an unscathed record and No. 2 ranking, and left with sore bodies and a few lessons learned.

Rise and shoot-around

The Texas bus rolled into Thompson-Boling Arena for a 9 a.m. shoot-around. As the players streamed onto the court to escape the chilly air, many were taking photos or recording video on their phones.

Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault and his son, Eric, were sitting in the stands awaiting the team’s arrival. They would be staying all day to scout both teams.

Thibault greeted Texas associate head coach Tina Thompson with a big hug and exchanged pleasantries with other members of the Texas staff.

ESPN commentators Debbie Antonelli and Beth Mowins soon arrived and grabbed a courtside seat to watch the team run through half-court sets and inbound plays.

Antonelli was completing a Tennessee doubleheader, having called the men’s game on Saturday afternoon.

Few programs can boast a “scout” team for shoot-around that includes a four-time WNBA champion and former NCAA Comeback Player of the Year, but Thompson and Jamie Carey give Texas that luxury.

The Texas assistants spent nearly 30 minutes denying the post and entry passes during 5-on-5 sets.

Texas head coach Karen Aston sensed a lack of focus at one point, and reminded the players it could cost them during the game.

The 39th all-time meeting between No. 2 Texas and No. 11 Tennessee would be an early-season barometer for the storied programs. It would have a postseason-like feel without the one-and-done ramifications.

The Longhorns have been playing without sophomore post Joyner Holmes. The reigning Big 12 Conference Freshman of the Year is suspended for the fall semester due to an unspecified university violation. She is not enrolled in classes and cannot travel or practice with the team.

How Texas will look once Holmes returns is something Aston can’t answer. She is focused on the daily process of working with the players available right now.

After the Longhorns finish the hour-long shoot-around with free throws, they gather at mid-court, raise their fists and yell “win” on three.

Aston chats with Antonelli and Mowins before filming a quick spot for the program’s social media accounts. The team boards the bus and heads back to the hotel for rest and a pregame meal.