March 20, 2022 

After stellar year, can UNLV be big part of Las Vegas’ WBB scene?

Though they lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, UNLV is ready to capitalize on Las Vegas' growing love of women's basketball

TUCSON, Ariz. — It was one day past the two-year anniversary of the day she was hired by the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. And oh, how quickly had Lindy La Rocque changed things for the Lady Rebels.

UNLV was coming off of back-to-back losing seasons and longtime head coach and alum Kathy Olivier had stepped down. In stepped La Rocque, who was all of 30 years old on the day she was hired.

Now, 731 days later, the Laby Rebels were not just in their first NCAA Tournament game in 20 years. They were leading the University of Arizona — last year’s runner-up — by five points after three quarters.

It’s a rapid ascension, but one that Las Vegas native La Rocque truly and fully believed in, all 731 days ago.

“Yes. Yes. I believe in this place, our team, our program, our university,” La Rocque said after Saturday’s game. “Yes. I believed I was going to be here, we were going to be here. That was our goal. That’s what we worked for.

“We were right there knocking on the door.”

Unfortunately, “were” is the key word for the 13-seed Lady Rebels. In front of a raucous and boisterous crowd of 9,573 at the McKale Center in Tucson, the 4-seed Wildcats held UNLV to just three points for the first 7:30 of the fourth and blitzed them offensively, using an 11-0 run over a three-minute stretch to blow the game open and hang on for the win.

For the upstart Lady Rebels, their season ends where so many young and fun mid-major programs do: in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, having given a major scare to a national power but ultimately falling short. But it’s clear this team, seemingly thrown together for this one run, has quickly changed UNLV’s outlook.

“This was definitely my best and most favorite college year,” said Khayla Rooks, a graduate transfer to UNLV out of Washington. “This team is special. This coaching staff is special, supporting staff is amazing. I’m so blessed to be here. I’m so blessed to be a part of it, and I’m happy I got to finish my basketball career out with these amazing people in my life.”

Rooks is one of three transfers that joined the Lady Rebels this season, providing the veteran presence for an otherwise young group. In fact, out of the seven players in Saturday’s rotation, only senior Justice Ethridge (who has a year of eligibility left) played for the previous coaching staff.

Any coach will tell you that throwing a roster together like this can really, really work … or it could really, *really* not work. This was a roster that clearly worked — even if there were times La Rocque couldn’t believe that this blend of humanity was working.

“There’s just times in your life when you get kind of a synergy of the right people around you that you just know something special is working and coming together,” La Rocque said. “I think I felt it all year with this group, even when some of the early games we were struggling. I just had this sense that this group is really special because they’re great young women first.

“They have such honestly polarizing personalities, and I’m like, how do they get along, and they love each other. We got some of the most quiet people I’ve ever been around and then you’ve got someone like Desi[-Rae Young] that is like a bigger personality than the room. Yet they will go to war and fight and just love on each other more than anyone.”

That is why La Rocque said her “overwhelming feeling” after Saturday’s game is a sadness that the season is over, knowing it will be extremely difficult to replicate this. And while the Las Vegas born-and-bred coach spoke about UNLV’s plans for the future on Saturday night, it’s worth mentioning she’s considered a rising star in the coaching community.

That fact — and, one could speculate, how much La Rocque has been connected to the current head coaching opening at Arizona State — was on the mind of Arizona coach Adia Barnes after Saturday’s game.

“I think Lindy has done a tremendous job. There was no doubt in my mind that she was going to be successful. She’s learned from one of the best and that’s Tara, so she learned from her as a player and then she learned from her as a coach,” Barnes said. “She’s turned the program around. First NCAA Tournament in 20 years, I think that shows her work. A very good team, well-coached. They run good offense. They’re organized. I think she’s doing a great job.

“I think UNLV is going to have to try to keep her home, otherwise she’s going to probably move to a bigger school in a couple years. But I think she’s doing a good job.”

But could that “bigger school” … just be UNLV and Las Vegas?

Three decades ago, UNLV’s men’s team was able to capture the desert city with an electric style of play and the Runnin’ Rebels won one national championship in 1990 and made it to the Elite Eight four times in five years. For a long time, UNLV was the only sports show in Sin City.

But that’s changed rapidly and drastically in Las Vegas, with the NHL’s Golden Knights kicking off a sports surge in the city. Mark Davis and the NFL’s Raiders moved from Oakland and MLB’s Athletics may not be far behind. But it’s Davis’ other team, the WNBA’s Aces, that may be the key part of a hypothetical to ponder:

Could Las Vegas become the women’s basketball world’s mecca, or even just a West Coast version of Connecticut?

Las Vegas was the host for the five-week Athletes Unlimited season that was considered a smashing success by so many in the women’s basketball world. The city already hosts nearly every West Coast college basketball conference tournament throughout the first two weeks of March, and star forward A’ja Wilson was seen at many of them, talking to teams. The Aces were bought in to the Lady Rebels’ run on social media, and Davis himself was in Tucson for Saturday night’s game.

Construction is expected to be completed soon on a practice facility for the Aces in Henderson, and team president Nikki Fargas said in January that the team is in discussions about building a permanent arena specifically for the Aces. If that arena gets completed, could UNLV and the Aces team up to make that facility a true, year-round home for women’s hoops in Las Vegas?

UNLV has four Las Vegas natives on their roster, including Essence Booker, Young and Jade Thomas. Jade’s sister Sam was a star on the Arizona team they faced Saturday, too. Given the national television audience, it was a heck of an advertisement for the Sin City’s young women’s basketball base.

 “For me, one of my personal goals was just to try to put Las Vegas on the map,” Booker said. “Wherever I go, whether it was at Spring Valley or UNLV.  I felt like being from Vegas – speaking for me and Desi, I feel like it’s special. Being on the national stage, playing on ESPN, and it’s building women’s basketball.”

And the thing about Saturday night’s intense and raucous crowd in Tucson? It was smaller than what the Aces drew in the WNBA semifinals against the Phoenix Mercury. It should leave hope that UNLV could get that, which is something Booker would love to see.

 “It would be great for this [crowd] to be a standard,” Booker said. “Hopefully, at UNLV, we can continue to build our fan base and one day it could be that high intensity, as well.”  

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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