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Nneka Enemkpali helps rebuild Horns

One of the motivations for Nneka Enemkpali to attend and play basketball for the University of Texas was a desire to restore something lost, to bring about change on the court at her hometown school. She didn't even make it to her first class on her first day before life, as it does, chuckled at the hubris and showed her the scale of the undertaking.

Help lead the Longhorns back to prominence inside the Frank Erwin Center? Start with navigating the campus.

So it was that Enemkpali, before she could figure out how she and her teammates could revive a once-proud program that increasingly lived in the shadow of in-state neighbors Baylor and Texas A&M, had to figure out how to find her own way back after the bus she thought would take her to the right building instead deposited her far from any useful landmark. If she failed to take her prescribed place in the front row of the class, she would incur not only pre-dawn conditioning punishment but the wrath of teammates.

She made it. Not quite on time and not without some effort, but she made it.

Where there is a will, after all, there is a way. And there is a lot of will to Enemkpali, the senior who leads No. 3 Texas in scoring and checked in at No. 21 when espnW ranked the top 25 players in the nation before the season. Texas-sized will, come to think of it.

"There is a consistent work ethic with her that is unmatched," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "She has her faults, and we've had our ups and down, and she has games where I know she wishes she would play better. But as a coach, you respect someone that goes to work every day.

"She has been the base, the foundation, of what we've done so far."

What they have done, specifically, is put Texas back on the map in the Lone Star State.

Even after a surprisingly uncompetitive loss at Washington and 40 minutes of slogging purgatory at Arkansas this past week, Texas A&M remains a team with SEC and Final Four aspirations and the ranking to prove it. Baylor, too, showed there is life in Waco, Texas, after Odyssey Sims, just as there was life after Brittney Griner for Kim Mulkey's program. The Lady Bears remain entrenched in the top 10 and among the Big 12 favorites. But ahead of both programs at the moment, programs that claim recent national championships, is unbeaten Texas, the only team in the state receiving votes for No. 1 in the AP Top 25.

If unbeaten has a ring to it when it comes to the program in burnt orange, it's because Texas, not Connecticut or Tennessee, was the first women's basketball team in the NCAA era to complete a perfect season in 1986. In an eight-year span under Jody Conradt, Texas reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament seven times and the Final Four twice. Yet in the 20 seasons preceding the current one, while Texas made one additional trip to the Final Four under Conradt, it won a total of 13 NCAA tournament games. Save for the blip of a brief revival a decade ago, Texas has been largely irrelevant in the national scene during the years those currently playing college basketball have been alive.

"I wanted to pick a school where I could help rebuild a program. … I look to the All-American wall every single day, and I see those players and I see the type of teams they had. I want to be a part of that." Nneka Enemkpali on choosing to attend Texas

Almost alone among her peers -- signature players now in possession of national championship aspirations -- Enemkpali took the road less traveled by choosing Texas. Baylor's Nina Davis, Connecticut's Breanna Stewart, Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd and Texas A&M's Courtney Walker and Courtney Williams all watched programs they eventually chose play in Final Fours. Texas, by contrast, won one NCAA tournament game in the four seasons Enemkpali starred at nearby Pflugerville High School -- and that was more than the two previous seasons, when it missed the tournament entirely. Some of the players who built Dawn Staley's South Carolina know the feeling. Few others do.

"I wanted to pick a school where I could help rebuild a program," Enemkpali said. "I didn't want to go to an already existing program where they'd been successful and the success will continue. I wanted to go somewhere where I could be impactful. Texas is a very prideful school. They've been known for their athletics and their basketball program, and I knew that with some years and with some time, that we would be able to get back to where we needed to be."

Though it might sound otherwise, she didn't grow up a Texas fan, proximity aside. She didn't pay much attention to college sports. The first Longhorns sporting event she recalls attending was a volleyball match when she was a sophomore at Pflugerville already drawing interest from college volleyball and basketball programs alike. The rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M that consume so many people in the state seemed slightly odd to her.

Why, she wondered, did schools with so much in common, so similar in academic and athletic excellence, hate each other so much?

Yet when, by her telling, Texas arrived at a shootaround before a game against Oklahoma her freshman year to find all the Longhorns turned upside down, her blood boiled.

"The caliber of players that have come through the program, that's where I look to," Enemkpali said. "I look to the All-American wall every single day, and I see those players and I see the type of teams they had. I want to be a part of that. I want to be a part of a team that whenever people look back on it, they say, 'That group of girls did something really unexpected of them.'"

Success is no longer unexpected. Assuming the Longhorns reclaim talented freshman guard Ariel Atkins from injury at some point in the coming weeks, there will be no element of surprise on their side come the postseason. With wins already at Stanford and against Tennessee -- with an intimidating frontcourt of Enemkpali, Kelsey Lang and Imani McGee-Stafford and the discipline of a team that has more assists than turnovers and whose opponents have nearly three times as many turnovers as assists -- Texas deserves its place in the polls. It would be nice to have a little more 3-point shooting and a little more experience in the kind of games that await in March, but the Final Four is a realistic goal.

Getting to Tampa would not be unexpected. Getting to the point where that is the case was.

Just as Enemkpali received that reminder about just how big a school she had to navigate when she took the wrong bus to the first day of classes, her first two seasons were one long reminder that while wanting to restore a program is nice, wishing alone doesn't make it so. Enemkpali was recruited by Gail Goestenkors and played her freshman season for the former Duke coach. The team reached the NCAA tournament, as it did in all five of the seasons that Goestenkors was in Austin, Texas, but coach and school still parted ways after a first-round exit and a losing Big 12 record.

Finally comfortable with a routine and the expectations on her at the college level by the end of a freshman season in which she played 17 minutes per game off the bench, she suddenly had to start from scratch with a new coach. And while Aston, a former Conradt assistant, kept her eye on Lone Star State recruiting during her time as head coach at Charlotte and knew all about Enemkpali, the player, like her teammates, knew nothing about the new coach.

"There is a consistent work ethic with her that is unmatched. … She has been the base, the foundation, of what we've done so far." Texas coach Karen Aston on Nneka Enemkpali

From 18 wins and the NCAA tournament -- modest winning but winning nonetheless -- Texas dropped to 12-18 the following season. The rebuild was in effect.

"The recruiting process between a coach and a player is very, very vital in building a relationship because the coach gets to learn a player off the court," Enemkpali said. "She gets to learn their tendencies. She gets to learn how they are as a person. To have that relationship builds trust between a player and a coach. So the fact that she came in and she didn't recruit half the players she had was kind of a roadblock at first."

That roadblock wasn't any bigger between Enemkpali and Aston than for her teammates. Indeed, the work ethic that the former brought to every workout and every practice was in its own way common ground. But Enemkpali's growth, as a player and with the coaching staff, is a mirror for the same sequence that played out around her the past three seasons.

Players earned the trust of coaches. Coaches earned the trust of players. A team got better.

Enemkpali averaged nearly seven fouls and five turnovers per 40 minutes as a freshman, one of many reasons she didn't play anything close to that many minutes. The consistent outlet basketball offered for her competitiveness and aggressiveness was one of the reasons she ultimately chose it over volleyball, but even the basketball court had its limits. She still flirts with turnovers, but she also has the ball in her hands a lot more often these days, listening when Aston, associate coach Travis Mays and others want her to pause and take stock of situations. And while she still has 110 rebounds, 20 blocks and 13 steals in 11 games, she is averaging a more manageable 3.8 fouls per 40 minutes.

She has learned, in other words, that being the most competitive player on the bench in foul trouble doesn't help her team.

Aston can be the greatest recruiter in the world, but to compete with Mulkey and Texas A&M coach Gary Blair in the years to come, she needs to compete for in-state talent. To do that, she needed detente with players she didn't recruit. And she needed to win. In that respect, Enemkpali's greatest legacy, whatever happens this season, might be felt in the years to come.

"It took me leaving the state to really appreciate how great Texas basketball is in the high school ranks," Aston said. "I think the other thing is that the change and the difference [from her previous time at Texas] is that there's a lot of competitiveness in recruiting. Not that there wasn't when I was here before, but it wasn't as strong. I don't know why any player that plays basketball in the state of Texas would leave Texas, because the programs are so strong, and it's such a fun rivalry between us all.

"I don't know why anybody would leave the state. I never understood that in the first place, and, quite honestly, when I was here before if you were the best player in the state, or one of the best players, then you stayed in state and most likely went to Texas -- when I was here before."

That had changed by the time Enemkpali made her decision. She initially made a verbal commitment to Texas when she was a sophomore in high school, swayed by the fact that the basketball program didn't waver in its interest after she suffered a torn ACL. A year later, worried she had been too hasty, she reopened the recruiting process. She didn't want to leave the state, but she felt like she should explore her options. She scheduled a visit to Baylor, but just as she was about to make the short trip north to Waco, it dawned on her that everything she wanted was still there in Austin.

Everything except the winning, and she could help with that.

So here she is, comfortable in a place she knows like the back of her hand.

And here is Texas, poised perhaps to reacquaint itself with the later rounds of the NCAA tournament.

"Once a Longhorn, always a Longhorn," Enemkpali said. "I will bleed burnt orange until the day that I am six feet under. There is a lot of pride that comes with being a Texas Longhorn. The word 'pride' is something you will continue to hear as long as you continue to ask me questions.

"There's no reason as to why someone who is born a Longhorn will not die a Longhorn."