Lady Rebels title game bound after dropping Falcons by double-digits
For the first time since 2002, the UNLV Lady Rebels are headed to a conference championship game.
The Lady Rebels defeated the Air Force Falcons, 61-50, Tuesday, March 8 in the semifinals matchup from the Thomas & Mack Center.
“We’ve talked multiple times about winning three games in three days,” head coach Lindy La Rocque said. “You don’t get to a third if you don’t win your first two and again, that’s the best thing that happened tonight.”
That’s the third win in three tries over Air Force, led by Mountain West Coach of the year Chris Gobrecht. An award that La Rocque took home last season.
“You know, the awards don’t really matter to me,” La Rocque said. “Honestly, what I care most about is our players get the awards, recognition and the respect they deserve. I’d give up my own awards for more wins, for a championship in a heartbeat and I know they’d do the same.”
The win means one more game to punch a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
UNLV will await the winner of No. 2 New Mexico and No. 6 Colorado State.
“It’s March, every game is a grind,” La Rocque said. “It doesn’t matter seeding, what court you’re on – we could be outside on the blacktop playing some no-name team and it would be a grind if there’s a championship at stake.”
The championship game will take place Wednesday, March 9 from the Thomas & Mack Center with tipoff scheduled for 7 p.m.
As it has at several points this season, the Lady Rebels relied heavily on junior guard Essence Booker down-the-stretch.
“I feel like the point guard resembles the head coach on the floor,” Booker said. “I feel like she trusts me to do that. I feel like I’ve been consistent throughout the season and the year even though it's my first year here. And most importantly, I feel like my teammates trust me and that matters.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, La Rocque and Booker both were engaged in a spirited discussion. After the game, both players gave their perspectives on the conversation.
“She just told me to stay aggressive,” Booker said. “Sometimes I feel like they tell me and they remind me that I’m my own biggest critic out there. So I tend to put my head down sometimes so she was just reminding me to go out there and play basketball.”
Booker scored nine of her team-high 17 points in the fourth quarter, giving UNLV the distance necessary to advance to the title game.
“Well, I guess it just goes to show the kids cannot remember anything that I tell them,” La Rocque said. “I told her, ‘Go win this game for us’ and she did.”
It was the second half where the Lady Rebels made their move for good, hopping into their press defense up four in the third quarter.
The lead would grow to nine by the end of the quarter after Air Force would go scoreless for nearly three minutes.
UNLV would eventually lead by as many as 14 points and would go onto win the second half, 34-27.
The win came despite 21 turnovers from the top seed in the tournament including five turnovers in the last 4:56 of the first half.
“We had a few too many turnovers but that’s alright,” La Rocque said. “We stayed gritty, stuck with each other and with two all-conference players sitting next to me up here. They got the job done. Desi showed why she’s the player of the year in the league and Essence does what she does and puts the game away for us.”
Sophomore center Desi-Rae Young got in on the action early tallying four points and four rebounds in her first four minutes of action on the court.
Earlier this week, Young was named the Mountain West Player of the Year.
“Well when you play us I think Desi is probably the first thing that people have on their scouting report,” La Rocque said. “She doesn’t lead the league in scoring and rebounding [but] she’s a handful. And she’s just been really, really consistent and done it a number of different ways.”
For the second consecutive tournament game, Young had to endure more physical play.
“It was physical and it was tough,” La Rocque said. “But our players never backed down.”
Young ended the night with 16 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
UNLV out-rebounded Air Force, 41-33, as a team.
Sophomore forward Nneka Obiazor added 10 points and seven rebounds in about 19 minutes.
The duo of Young and Obiazor helped the Lady Rebels win the paint battle 32-20.
In fact, the game’s first three-pointer was not recorded until about four minutes into the second quarter when senior forward Khayla Rooks got one to fall.