Tanaya Atkinson still remembers the first points she scored while playing organized basketball.
In her first game for her middle school’s varsity team, she went out and took a shot from behind the 3-point arc. It sailed into the hoop, and Atkinson said she felt the crowd go wild. It was her first real taste of basketball, and it was enough to get her hooked.
Atkinson has been playing ever since, and now in her senior year at Temple, she finds herself in a position she never would’ve imagined. The guard from New Haven, Connecticut, is second in the American Athletic Conference in points per game and rebounds per game, as of Monday. Her scoring average also ranked 18th in Division I.
She scored 26 points and passed her former teammate Feyonda Fitzgerald for second on the Owls’ all-time scoring list during Monday’s 83-78 overtime loss to Memphis.
“I definitely realized that this year is really all I have left,” Atkinson said. “I had no choice but to go. So it comes down to dedication. If you are dedicated to something…it’s about going and getting it.”
Over the summer, Atkinson spent every day of the week in the gym working out with her trainer in Waterbury, Connecticut. It was a 45-minute drive from her home in New Haven, but nothing could keep Atkinson from the extra practice.
In her junior season, Atkinson averaged 13 points per game off the bench and won The American’s Sixth Player of the Year award. Now, Atkinson averages 21.1 points per game.
Atkinson’s rebounding game has also been strong with an average of 9.4 rebounds per game. Between her rebounding and scoring, Atkinson has recorded 16 double-doubles this season.
On Feb. 21, Atkinson became just the second player in program history to score at least 1,000 points and accumulate at least 1,000 rebounds.
“I think this year especially, she’s turned it on and become even more of a scorer than she has been in the past,” coach Tonya Cardoza said. “And she’s a tenacious rebounder. … Not many people her size are capable of grabbing as many rebounds as she’s grabbed in her career.”
The 6-foot guard credits her aggressive style to playing ball with her two brothers in their backyard growing up. They encouraged her to pursue basketball even though their mom wanted her to be a dancer or tennis player.
“I’m so tough, so aggressive, because I’m used to growing up playing with boys,” Atkinson said. “There were no fouls, no calls. I was so little, I used to shoot and they’d block it over the fence. And then my brother said, ‘Make sure if you’ve got the lane again, you take it.’”
During her senior season, Atkinson has also passed on advice to other players. During games, she often pulls the young Temple team into a huddle to go over a play or tell her teammates where they should be on the court.
“She’s just constantly talking, communicating,” Cardoza said. “Hopefully, that’s a part that will rub off on the young guys, that they see no matter what the situation, tired, not tired, down, winning, that you constantly have to be communicating with each other.”
The Owls (11-18, 3-13 The American) will not return to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season unless they win the conference tournament.
Before this season, losing had not been a common experience for Atkinson. She has been on three teams that made the postseason since her freshman season.
Despite this season’s setbacks, Atkinson has not slowed down. In a mid-season loss against conference opponent Cincinnati, she scored 39 points to tie for third for most points in a single game in Temple history.
“She has passion to win, passion for the game, passion to want to be great at everything she does,” senior guard Khadijah Berger said.
“I’ve been playing to the best of my ability,” Atkinson said. “I try to go out there every game and give my all.”
Looking beyond her college career, Atkinson — who is a communication studies major — hopes to play professionally. She is willing to play overseas, like Fitzgerald, who now plays in Poland, or in the United States, she said.
For Atkinson, it is about finding a way to continue playing.
“I feel like this is my life,” Atkinson said. “Basketball is all I’ve got at this point. It’s either going to pay for me to live, to eat, or I’m just going to have to get back into my school field. But as of now, I definitely want to keep playing basketball.”