Lady Rebels reach new high, beat Lobos for first in MW
After waiting more than three weeks for a second look at New Mexico, UNLV finally got its getback.
The Lady Rebels outlasted the Lobos, 85-79, Thursday, Jan. 27 from the Cox Pavilion.
New Mexico won by three points in early January.
“Obviously, we knew what was resting on this game,” head coach Lindy La Rocque said. “We didn’t shy away from it. Obviously, [the team] knows the standings, it knew we lost there last time and it knew [New Mexico] hadn’t lost.”
UNLV is now 16-4 on the year and 8-1 in the Mountain West conference, now sitting at No. 1 in the conference standings.
The win also hands New Mexico its first conference loss this season.
The program’s win streak is now up to six games to go along with a 9-1 home record.
“I think the atmosphere of the game was awesome and our team really needed it,” La Rocque said. “When we kind of needed a boost, honestly, it was the crowd that kept us in it.”
Another home game is on the horizon for UNLV as Air Force is set to enter the Cox Pavilion Saturday, Jan. 29 for a 2 p.m. contest.
“That was the message to the team,” La Rocque said. “This is great, this is what we work for, this is the outcome we wanted for the game to put us at the top. Now being at the top means everyone is looking at you. That’s a privilege for the work and the time you’ve put in. But now you have to guard that with everything in your being.
“There’s not just a target on our backs anymore, people are going to be coming for necks. Frankly, the only people that can beat us are us.”
The second matchup between UNLV and New Mexico produced a game that saw 11 lead changes and eight ties. Nine of the lead changes came in the second half along with all eight ties.
La Rocque did not call a timeout until well into the fourth quarter.
“I’m not one to kind of freak out in the middle of games,” La Rocque said. “I think timeouts are really useful obviously when a team is going on a run. I debated calling one earlier in the fourth quarter but I like to save them. I really do, especially against a good team.”
The Lobos led by as many as 10 points midway through the first half but would have the lead cut to five on a 5-0 run by the Lady Rebels.
UNLV would later get its first lead of the game on a three-pointer from freshman guard Kiara Jackson.
The team needed three separate and-one occurrences in the third quarter to keep the game tight.
Junior guard Essence Booker scored a career-high 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting.
“Essence is big time,” senior guard Justice Ethridge. “I told her I needed 30 from her this game so I’m really happy for her, really excited for her. She’s a big part of this team and she needs to play like that every night.”
In the third quarter, Booker knocked down a free throw for her 19th point of the game and the 1,000th of her career.
“Coming in especially without [senior forward Khayla Rooks], she was frankly stressed,” La Rocque said. “Khayla’s her right hand and again, like half of her brain.
“I knew she would come out like this but I don’t think she was aware of some of the different milestones and things which she shouldn’t be and I’m glad those things happened.”
Booker agreed that not having Rooks out there was different. “Khayla is definitely the brains of the operation,” Booker said. “She’s the brain out there when I’m out there so missing her sucked but we feel like everybody off-the-bench is a huge piece of the team.” After the game, La Rocque did announce that Rooks would miss the team’s next contest against Air Force. At the start of the fourth quarter, Booker was acknowledged for her accomplishment in front of her hometown of Las Vegas.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know I was that close to 1,000 points,” she said. “When it was announced, it was midgame so I wasn’t worried about it – I was trying to win and I feel like I couldn’t get distracted so I was just trying to stay in-tune.
“But to get that acknowledgement and reach 1,000 career points here means a lot and it wouldn’t have happened without the team.”
Booker got it going early, scoring all nine of the Lady Rebels’ first quarter points.
“In a little way it felt like we were playing out there without our brain [without Rooks],” La Rocque said. “I think even the players had to adjust to that.”
The second quarter saw the first points scored by somebody other than Booker.
Jackson and freshman forward Alyssa Brown played huge roles, starting in that second quarter.
“I think everyone is starting to see just how huge Kiara is for us because of [her ability to play point guard with Essence on the court],” La Rocque said. “Being on-ball as a point guard is tiring, especially when you’re required to guard their point guard as one of their best players.”
Jackson finished with eight points and four assists in 30-plus minutes.
Brown added a career-high eight points on 4-of-7 from the field in a little under 21 minutes of action.
“Coming in with Khayla out – I mean, the most minutes she’s played all year – probably combined,” La Rocque said. “And she was ready. Again, she wasn’t perfect but she just kept playing and kept playing hard and listened and tried to do the next right thing.”
Freshman guard Alyssa Durazo-Frescas scored all 15 of her points in the second half, including four made threes.
“Alyssa got hot in the second half and hit some big time shots,” La Rocque said. “I mean, they went into a zone and it was just like ‘Bang, Bang.’ Again, we all think and know those are going in so when they do they’re huge momentum plays.”
Ethridge came up clutch in the fourth quarter, securing highlight reel play after highlight reel play.
“Poor kid, she’s playing with like half a leg,” La Rocque said. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on but she was really hobbled in shootaround. I’m like ‘Am I even going to be able to play her?’ But she’s just a gamer.”
Ethridge made a reverse layup with two seconds left on the shot clock before following it up with a huge block on the other end.
She opened the game with a big block on New Mexico forward Shaiquel McGruder 20 seconds into the game.
After the game, Ethridge said there was “no way” she wasn’t going to play this game citing “Mamba mentality.”
Ethridge would secure the game-saving steal with less than four seconds left in regulation.
Sophomore center Desi-Rae Young finished with nine points on 4-of-10 from the field.
It’s the first time she’s been held to single-digit scoring all season long.
“Tonight, just like the whole year, she’s gotten a lot better,” Ethridge said. “She’s starting to take her time and is being patient, trying to get more looks and just kick out when she sees the double team.”
Despite starting the game 0-for-3 from the field, Young got a late offensive rebound and putback basket to put UNLV up two with about 30 seconds left.