Defending champ UNLV open conference play with win over Wyoming
The conference title repeat campaign for the UNLV Lady Rebels began with a win over the Wyoming Cowgirls to open the Mountain West slate.
UNLV downed Wyoming, 73-67, Thursday, Dec. 29 from the Cox Pavilion. The last three contests between these two teams have been decided by an average of 5.3 points per outing.
Last season, these two teams split both meetings with each program winning on its home floor.
“Last year, it was personal for us because we ended [the series[ with a loss at their place,” sophomore guard Kenadee Winfrey said. “We wanted this one back and that’s what we gave them. And this is important for us because you know what we’re going for, we’re going for that trophy and starting off with one win is the way to do it.”
By beating Wyoming, UNLV improves to 11-2 on the year and 1-0 in the Mountain West. Currently, the team sits atop the conference.
Two-thirds of a three-game homestand for the Lady Rebels has been completed with a date with the Colorado State Rams looming.
“It’s the same thing, it’s personal,” Winfrey said. “We want every win out there so we’re going for the win and we’re going to come to practice tomorrow like it’s a gameday. We practice like we play.”
That matchup will be played Saturday, Dec. 31 with tip-off scheduled for 3 p.m.
UNLV needed a late push to get past Wyoming but sophomore guard Kiara Jackson filled the role of closer, ending with 20 points, a point shy of tying her career-high which she posted in the team’s last outing.
“She’s getting better each and every game,” head coach Lindy La Rocque said. “She’s a really good player – a young player and I’m just extremely proud of her.”
Jackson completed an and-one about midway through the fourth quarter with the team down a point to give them a two-point edge. That came as part of a 10-0 run late where the Lady Rebels held the Cowgirls scoreless for nearly four minutes.
“I think we pride ourselves on finishing,” La Rocque said. “We didn’t have the third quarter we were expecting and wanting. But they know when the game is on the line, you have to have the toughness to finish.”
Jackson put the finishing touches on the team’s win with a mid-range jumper to put the home team up three with less than 44 seconds on the clock. She had the knack for finding the bottom of the bucket when the team needed it most, to end the first half, Jackson scored five straight for her team.
“It just shows how much confidence [ La Rocque] has in me to be able to handle at the end of the game when we need big shots,” Jackson said.
The ferocious comeback from UNLV came after Wyoming built a seven-point lead early in the fourth quarter. That came on the heels of an 8-0 run in the third quarter to eventually take its first lead since the 3:59-mark of the first quarter.
Jackson got the start for senior guard Essence Booker, who came off the bench for the first time since joining the Lady Rebel program. Prior to that, she had made 45 straight starts.
“She’s a great teammate,” La Rocque said of Booker. “Nothing is set in stone and so we have to earn everything that we get in practice every single day. She’s doing that and again, I believe in her more than anyone.”
Just before practice yesterday, Jackson was made aware of the change in the starting lineup.
“I was excited,” she said. “I feel like I earned it because I’ve been working hard in practice. But I was also a little nervous and I told [assistant] coach Karlie Burris that and she said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s no different.’”
At the 5:06-mark of the first quarter, Booker checked into the game for the first time and scored four first quarter points on the way to six points in 15 minutes of action.
While senior center Desi-Rae Young didn’t have it going early on the offensive end, she made her difference on the defensive side of the ball.
By the 4:22-mark of the second quarter, Young had a stat line of seven points, five rebounds, three assists and four steals. Even when she wasn’t making the steal, Young forced Wyoming into several traveling calls including one just before the start of the team’s 10-0 run late in regulation.
“I think Desi was really patient and doing her job,” La Rocque said. “She’s solid and we know that. She’s going to continue to command more and more attention.
“Her post defense was probably the best of her career. To hold those two big post players, [who are] a big piece of their game – they were non-existent frankly.”
Young ended the night with 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting to go along with eight rebounds, three assists and four steals. She was also responsible for the screen that freed Jackson up on that midrange jumper to take a three-point lead with 43.8 left on the clock.
Fellow senior Justice Ethridge chipped in with 13 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Sophomore forward Alyssa Brown made her return to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 11 in Hawaii. She finished with three points, five rebounds and a steal in 16 minutes.
The team was still without junior forward Nneka Obiazor, who is still dealing with a knee injury.
“We’re still trying to figure it exactly out,” La Rocque said. “To be honest, it’s a little day-to-day but we’ll know here pretty soon.”
With Obiazor still out of the lineup, Winfrey continued to carve out a spot for herself. She poured in three three-pointers on the way to 11 points and six rebounds.
“They were worried about Desi’s strong presence,” Winfrey said. “Which they should’ve been because you know what Desi’s been doing, she’s been doing her thing and that’s that.
“They were kind of sagging off and I was open early.”