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UNLV overpowers Wyoming on the way to second straight NCAA Tournament bid

The UNLV Lady Rebels hoist the Mountain West Conference Tournament trophy after beating the Wyoming Cowgirls, 71-60, Wednesday night. Photo Credit: Duna Haigler

For the second consecutive year, the UNLV Lady Rebels are going dancing.

Via an automatic bid, the Lady Rebels will take part in this year’s NCAA Tournament after beating the Wyoming Cowgirls, 71-60, Wednesday, March 8 from the Thomas & Mack Center in the finals of the Mountain West Championship. UNLV took all three meetings away from Wyoming this year by an average score of 10.3 points per game.

Over the last two years, the Lady Rebels have claimed both Mountain West regular season titles as well as the conference’s tournament title.

“[Head coach Lindy La Rocque’s] first initial conversation with me was about winning a championship,” senior guard Essence Booker said. “We did that last year, we put that in the past and we wanted the same thing this year. I’m just glad I got to be a part of it.”

The win improves the program to 31-2 on the year while extending its win streak to 22 straight wins, the second-longest streak in the nation behind only South Carolina. In addition, the team heads into the tournament having won 21 straight Mountain West meetings.

“I’m not one of the types [of people] to set a goal and then limit myself to that,” La Rocque said. “We just came in with that mentality to work hard every day, focus on the next game and see where that can take us. It took us pretty [far] and led us pretty well last year. I knew if we came out with the same mentality from the get go, who knows what could happen.”

UNLV will now await its destiny as the field go 68 will be set Sunday, March 12. Last year, the team was seeded 13th and lost to No. 4 Arizona by five points.

“I think we did a great job last year,” junior center Desi-Rae Young said. “We just fell a little short. I think this year we’re going to come out 10 times stronger. Coach Lindy said it, ‘People should be mad that they’re playing us. People should be fearful of us because we have that aggression that we didn’t have that much last year.’ We want it this year.”

Head coach Lindy La Rocque smiles during the team's win in the MWC Finals that punched an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Photo Credit: Duna Haigler

In order to get the win in the team’s latest outing, it had to endure a fiery comeback from Wyoming sparked by some hot shooting.

The Lady Rebels grabbed control of the game in the second quarter after holding the Cowgirls without a point for almost four minutes. During that stretch, UNLV was able to grow its lead to eight points.

That lead would grow to 13 in the third quarter but Wyoming would fight back and trim that deficit down to a point with just under a minute left in regulation. In an effort to come from a double-digit hole, the Cowgirls were bolstered by a 5-for-5 shooting stretch to close the gap.

Wyoming closed the third quarter on a 19-9 run.

“We kind of knew if we could keep scoring that it would be hard for [Wyoming] to keep up with,” La Rocque said. “We did a pretty good job and then [the Cowgirls] got hot there in the third quarter, oh my gosh. I think that was their best punch and we weathered the storm pretty well.”

That fire started by the Cowgirls was quickly extinguished in the early moments of the fourth quarter after the Lady Rebs answered with a 5-0 run to open the frame highlighted by a made three-pointer from Alyssa Durazo-Frescas.

That went down as Durazo-Frescas’ fourth made three of the game after opening the game perfect on her first three three-point tries.

“Coach Lindy has been preaching about it,” Booker said. “When her jersey is called, she shows up and she did that tonight. She hit some big shots – shots that we needed. Big shots that gave us momentum and we carried that all through all four quarters.”

Durazo-Frescas finished with 12 points, all from made threes. She was held scoreless on 0-of-3 shooting in the team’s last game against San Diego State.

Young was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after recording a monster double-double in the finals, posting 28 points and 17 rebounds. The 17 rebounds was one off from tying her career-high set earlier this year.

While Wyoming was making its come-from-behind attempt, Young got a basket to go from deep in the paint plus the foul to put the team up five. With about two and a half minutes left in regulation, Young was responsible for the offensive rebound and putback that put the team up double-digits once again.

Junior center Desi-Rae Young flexes from the hardwood after getting a basket to go through the foul. Photo Credit: Duna Haigler

At one point of the second quarter, Young traded baskets with Wyoming center Allyson Fertig before drawing a charge to give the 6’4” Cowgirl her second foul of the first 13 minutes. To compound matters, she picked up her third foul of the game 10 seconds into the third quarter.

Lady Rebel guard Essence Booker looks to break down the defense during the team's 71-60 win over the Cowgirls. Photo Credit: Duna Haigler

“To be honest, that’s what I was thinking the whole time,” Young said. “‘If we get her in foul trouble then we can attack the basket. No one can stop me and E pick-and-roll, that two-man game. I think we did a phenomenal job of going at her the whole game.”

With Fertig in foul trouble, UNLV was able to take control of the rebounding battle in the second half, edging out its opponent, 24-11, on the way to a 42-24 final tally.

By halftime, Fertig had been limited to six points. She was handcuffed to the tune of just one point in the second half. Fertig has been held to single-digit scoring in five conference games this year, three of which came against UNLV.

“[Our players] face each other every day in practice,” La Rocque said. “[Senior center] Keyana Wilfred didn’t play a minute tonight but she is the Allyson Fertig for Desi everyday in practice. And frankly, I think is just as good – Keyana could be a starting post [player] for any team in our league.

“I think we’re able to do a good job on Fertig on both ends because we make her guard in the post too which only a handful of teams do in our league.”

Booker closed the show for the Lady Rebels, scoring six points in the final two minutes en route to 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting. The fantastic finish came after she was held scoreless through the first 13 and a half minutes of the game.

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