For the first time since 2002, the UNLV Lady Rebels are going dancing.
With a tournament bid on the line, UNLV downed Colorado State, 75-65, Wednesday, March 9 in the finals of the Mountain West Championship from the Thomas & Mack Center.
“I’m just extremely proud,” head coach Lindy La Rocque said. “I don’t know honestly if it's totally set in yet. I’m really, really proud of all the young women in our locker room.”
Including the tournament run, this year’s UNLV team went 6-0 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
It was the second meeting of the season between the Rams and Lady Rebels in Fort Collins with the first meeting in late February a win for the road team.
That win clinched the regular season conference title and the No. 1 seed for the program.
“What a great women’s basketball game,” La Rocque said. “Credit Colorado State, playing four games in four days. [It] gave everything that [it] had in their gas tanks.”
It had been 28 years since UNLV last won a tournament title, then as a part of the Big West Conference.
“We knew coming into this game what we wanted to do,” junior guard Essence Booker said. “We wanted to make history. We wanted to go to the dance. We knew this was our way of getting there and I feel like every single one of us had so much determination to win this game tonight.”
In her two years as head coach of the Lady Rebels, La Rocque has compiled a record of 41-15 with conference regular season and conference tournament titles along with a Coach of the Year award to her credit.
“I think the biggest thing is just that we believed,” she said. “Even last year, the belief started, like the second I got the job. That’s when it really started of like you have to believe you can do it before really you can ever do it.”
Now, UNLV will not have to wait to see if its name will be called on this upcoming Selection Sunday but rather when.
Selection Sunday is Sunday, March 13 and begins at 5 p.m.
Normally playing the role of closer, Booker got off to a fast start, scoring 10 of her team-high 25 points in the first quarter.
She was named Tournament MVP following the victory along with being named to the All-Tournament team.
“To be honest, I didn’t strive for getting Tournament MVP,” she said. “Coming into the tournament, I was just trying to win and I wanted to win with this group. So I felt like Lindy kept emphasizing that we have to do whatever it takes.”
Colorado State went up by nine early in the game before UNLV would go on a 16-6 run to change the course of the game.
Conference Newcomer of the Year Upe Atosu rushed out to six points on a perfect 2-of-2 from three-point range but picked up two first quarter fouls. She left the floor with the Rams up two points.
In addition, it took Colorado State 3:44 seconds to score its first points of the second quarter while UNLV raced out to a 12-point lead.
The lead would get up to as many as 13 points in the third quarter before the No. 6 seed made another run.
The Rams would hold the Lady Rebels without a bucket in the final 3:18 of the third quarter, cutting the lead to five in the process.
In the fourth quarter, Colorado State would use a 24-10 run, dating back to the third, to cut it to one.
“They trust each other,” La Rocque said. “So even when Colorado State made a heck of a run and like, what, did they cut it to one point? And obviously, we had a lot to lose and the outcome could have been totally different if we don’t have great leadership.”
Up four with 45 seconds left, Booker was freed by an after-timeout play that led to a wipe-open corner three-pointer.
“We knew we had to get a quick shot,” La Rocque said. “We put in this out-of-bounds play. Roman Owen and our assistant coaches were just watching games so I’ll give the credit where it’s due. We actually stole it from Adia Barnes at Arizona. I saw it in one of her games and I was like, ‘I’m going to save this for the very end.’”
UNLV tallied 22 total assists on 30 made field goals.
“I feel like we just trust each other,” Booker said. “Like [Lindy] says the open player is our [go-to player]. When the ball is in my hands, they trust me to make the right decisions. When the ball is in [sophomore center Desi-Rae Young’s] hands, they trust her to make the right decision. So it’s just about trusting and trusting what Lindy is telling us to do out there, we’ve got a good group.”
The paint was another category where the Lady Rebels edged the Rams, to the tune of a 34-28 advantage.
In fact, Colorado State didn’t get its second basket in the paint until the 1:07-mark of the second quarter.
“We always want to work inside-out,” Young said. “And even if I get doubled, making the extra pass. [...] Just making the right pass, looking for everyone, everyone is diving – Essence is diving, [senior guard Justice Ethridge] is diving, post players are diving.”
Young battled double teams for most of the night but was able to turn in 14 points on 7-of-8 shooting to go along with seven rebounds.
She was also named to the All-Tournament team along with fellow sophomore Nneka Obiazor, who finished with nine points and six rebounds.
Obiazor even cashed in on a deep three-pointer at the sound of the first quarter buzzer.
UNLV won the rebounding battle, 40-37, led by a team-high eight from senior forward Khayla Rooks.
After four years with the Washington Huskies, Rooks compiled a record of 38-75, never finishing better than four games under .500.
“Man, I can’t even begin to tell you how it feels,” she said. “Just the past four years has been a struggle bus at my last school. So just coming here and playing alongside these amazing women and getting the W and going to the dance, I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
As she climbed the ladder to cut a piece of the net down, Rooks could be heard saying, “I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
“I’ve cut down a few nets in my day,” La Rocque said. “With this group, it’s just – I would do anything for them because I know they would do anything for me. And to say it is one thing, to believe it is another thing and then go out there and get the job done is something on a whole other level.”