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UNLV edges out San Diego State to reach second straight MWC Finals

UNLV’s veteran leadership peaked at the right time to propel the team to the Mountain West Championships Finals for the second straight year.


Going down to the final seconds, the Lady Rebels were able to outlast the San Diego State Aztecs, 71-68, Tuesday, March 7 from the Thomas & Mack Center. While taking all three of the meetings against SDSU this year, UNLV did so by final margins of six, six and three.


“We knew it was going to be like that,” head coach Lindy La Rocque said. “A battle for 40 minutes, I’m shocked it didn’t go into more minutes because we kind of expected that going in.”


As the Lady Rebels advance to the MWC Finals for the second consecutive season, the team picks up its 20th straight conference win and 21st straight win overall. Now, the program is 30-2 while continuing to improve on its single-season wins record set a game ago.


The team will play the winner of the matchup between No. 2 Wyoming and No. 3 Colorado State. That game will be contested Wednesday, March 7.


Some believe based on bracketology, the Lady Rebels would have to win the conference tournament to secure a NCAA Tournament bid despite their dominant 30-2 overall record.


“I think we’re focused on winning because we want to win,” La Rocque said. “That’s why we play, we want to win, we want to control our own destiny and that’s what we’re excited to do.”


UNLV had to withstand a thunderous comeback from SDSU as it battled back from a double-digit point deficit to climb to within one point twice in the final 1:15 of regulation including the final time with 7.4 left on the clock.


The Aztecs drilled back-to-back three-pointers in a five-second span, closing the gap to a point.


“Even with those last two threes we still weren’t worried,” junior center Desi-Rae Young said. “We were more worried about winning the game, having [senior guard Essence Booker] make those last two free throws – that’s what we were worried about.”


A dominant 17-8 third quarter by the Lady Rebels provided the No. 1 seed in the tournament a lead as large as 11 points. Coming out of the halftime break, the team used a 6-0 run to break a 33-all tie, forcing its opponent to take a timeout.


The second quarter wasn’t so kind to UNLV as it shot 6-of-18 from the field including 0-of-4 from three-point range. There was even a scoreless drought of more than three minutes but SDSU was only able to build a lead as large as four points.


“I thought we just didn’t have a couple of things go our way,” La Rocque said. “It’s a game of runs so we expected.”


Senior guard Justice Ethridge hit a jumper just before the halftime buzzer to tie the game at 33 apiece. She followed that up with six points in the third quarter, all in the first four minutes of the frame.


“Justice was carrying [us],” Booker said. “I shot 4-for-15, we couldn’t get anything going and Justice was carrying. That’s what she does, she’s the silent assassin and we depended on her to do that and she came and showed up today.”


Ethridge finished with 15 points on 7-of-10 from the field to help the team improve to 13-0 when she reaches double-digit points. She scored in double-figures in each of the three meetings this year against the Aztecs including tying a career-high with 22 points.


“She just rises to the occasion,” La Rocque said. “She really does, [Essence and Desi] are on everyone’s scouting report and they are the priority of what people try to take away so when you have third player like Justice that can go off, who can attack the basket – she’s so athletic [...] I think that’s what really makes us hard to guard.”


UNLV’s shooting as a whole was a complete flip from its quarterfinals performance, shooting 42% from the field including a 2-for-12 mark from deep and just 70% from the free throw line. “We score inside,” La Rocque said. “We go inside to Desi, she’s our rock, our anchor. We score in the paint, that’s our identity – we rebound and then we execute. So on nights that we can make shots, it’s a bonus.”


Booker shook off a slow shooting start to the game, missing on seven of her first eight field goals. In fact, she was 2-of-13 from the floor before converting on her two field goals in the last 2:08 of the fourth quarter. She also drilled all six of her free throw attempts in the final 31 seconds of regulation.


“It was really my teammates the whole game and the coaching staff,” Booker said. “Desi came up to me a few times and told me just to make the free throws. And Lindy’s always pushing for me to be aggressive the entire game.”


Booker finished with a game-high 22 points on 4-of-15 from the field. Over the last two games against SDSU, she has been limited to 7-of-26 shooting while scoring a combined 34 points.


Young added a 20-point, 13-rebound double-double on 7-of-15 shooting. She has now posted 17 double-doubles this season.


“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’,” Young said. “I take pride in team basketball, I do whatever the team needs me to do. I believe in that and I’m going to play like that all of the time.”


Having been led to victory by her upperclassmen leadership, La Rocque’s stance that the trio of Ethridge, Young and Booker would be relied on most when it mattered most came to fruition Tuesday.


“We got into some tough situations that we put ourselves in during the game and we hit adversity,” Booker said. “But when we do hit adversity it comes down to Desi, myself and Justice – all of the upperclassmen really just sticking together and showing poise so that we can bring along the team.”

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