March 8, 2024 

After starting every game so far, Makayla Daniels will finish as an Arkansas record-breaker

Neighbors: 'She made us relevant again'

When Makayla Daniels arrived at the University of Arkansas in summer 2019, she wasn’t sure she’d start a single game. A few months later, ahead of the Razorbacks’ first exhibition and her first-ever collegiate matchup, she thought her teammate was playing a joke on her. 

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Amber [Ramirez] had joked with me before the first exhibition game that I was starting, and I was like, ‘I think she’s just trying to play a prank on me.’ Just a little bit of upperclassmen hazing or whatever,” the now-fifth-year guard recounted. “And then when I saw my name on the board, I was actually shocked.”

Much to her surprise, she’s started every game since — earning her the program record for career starts. This season, she is averaging 11.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.7 steals in 34.1 minutes per game.

“You don’t expect a freshman to come in and [start]. … The day we signed her, that wasn’t the plan,” Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors reflected after his team’s loss to Auburn in the SEC Tournament on Thursday. “But then she got on campus, and you knew pretty quick it was going to be tough to keep her off the floor.”

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An emotional loss

Daniels’ graduation has a special knack for leaving a room in tears. Sitting at the dais after the Hogs’ loss on Thursday, Daniels made both herself and her teammate well up. Even the players in the postgame locker room shed a tear or two, even though Daniels’ career likely will continue a little longer with a WNIT berth.

On her Senior Night on Feb. 25, as her coaches, teammates, and parents donned special shirts in her honor, everyone had also been in tears. Daniels will remember her senior night for many reasons: partly because she was ejected in the third quarter for one too many technicals, but also because she opened her locker to 20-plus of her commemorative shirts. 

Wearing a T-shirt honoring fifth-year senior guard Makayla Daniels, Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors puts his right hand on Daniels' shoulder as they walk off the court.
Makayla Daniels and Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors celebrate Daniels’ five years with the Razorbacks with custom shirts and tears at her Senior Night game against Vanderbilt at Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., on Feb. 25, 2024. (Photo credit: Arkansas Athletics)

“I kept one and then they don’t know, but I have all of their shirts,” Daniels laughed, gesturing to her teammates. The silently sullen locker room perked up at that point, erupting in laughter and confusion. No one fessed up to putting them in her locker.

Growing in Fayetteville

Daniels, this year’s only graduating Razorback, is a clear leader now, but when she first arrived in Fayetteville from Frederick, Maryland, she was extremely quiet and “refused” to talk to her team. Although she had committed to Arkansas because Neighbors and his staff felt like “family,” she was too shy to approach her coach.

“I was like, ‘He doesn’t want to hear from me. What am I going to say?’” Daniels said.

On the flip side, Neighbors always felt Daniels’ insight was a gift. The Arkansas coaching staff let her have a couple years of silence, but then they put her on a campus council and looked for opportunities for her to get involved in the city’s community. It was an attempt at player development but also a community contribution. “She’s got such neat thoughts,” Neighbors said.

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Spending five years at one program is increasingly rare, and in the last five years, Daniels says she became a “completely different person” on and off the court. Nowadays, she regularly spends time with her team and is a vocal leader, even if it doesn’t always feel natural.

“Being a freshman is hard. You’re really nervous,” freshman forward Jenna Lawrence told reporters on Thursday. “You have to adapt a whole lot more than with high school. [Daniels] being out there, calming me down, if I mess up, [saying,] ‘It’s okay, next play, next play,’ it really helps me and I’m thankful for her.”

But according to Neighbors, Daniels has stayed the same more than anything. People are often shocked at how approachable she is off the court.

“I got [an email] after a tough loss at home … A family saw her out eating at a restaurant. They said they were trying to be respectful of Mak,” Neighbors said. “They said that Mak noticed it. She picked up on the fact that this little girl wanted to come over but was being told no. So you know what Mak did? She goes over there, pulls up a chair and talks.”

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Neighbors and Daniels’ ties

Neighbors and Daniels both say they needed each other to get to the next level. Neighbors is eternally grateful for Daniels daring to make Arkansas relevant again, and Daniels says she wouldn’t have grown as much anywhere else.

And the statistics say the same. She is the highest-scoring point guard in school history with 1,845 points and a top-five scorer overall. In addition to holding the program record for starts, she also holds the records for SEC wins, games played and career minutes.

And although Daniels has said over the last few seasons that she wants to play overseas, she’s now not sure.

“We’re 50-50 right now. I would like to go overseas for at least a year, but I don’t know if it’s going to last longer than a year,” Daniels said. “Done with basketball would be the other 50[%]. You know, live a regular life.”

What she is sure about is that she wants someone to break her records in an Arkansas jersey.

But Neighbors won’t let her forget so quickly.

“We’re just really thankful that she was a Razorback,” he said. “And now she’ll always be a Razorback.”

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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