On the strength of its most successful regular season in eight years, the UNLV women's basketball team has virtually assured itself a spot in a national postseason tournament.
But to advance to the NCAA Tournament, rather than the second-tier Women's National Invitation Tournament, the Lady Rebels probably will have to win the Mountain West Conference tournament and earn the league's automatic bid.
"There's a chance, if we even make it to the championship game, (the NCAA would) consider us, but we don't want to even take that chance," senior Jamie Smith said. "We want to win out and get that automatic bid."
No. 2 seed UNLV (22-8), which earned its first top-two finish in the MWC and is riding a five-game winning streak, faces No. 7 New Mexico (9-19) at 6:05 p.m. today in a quarterfinal matchup at the Thomas & Mack Center.
The Lady Rebels swept the season series from the Lobos, winning 64-50 in Albuquerque, N.M., on Jan. 21 and 65-60 at home Feb. 18.
But UNLV's fourth-year coach, Kathy Olivier, isn't taking New Mexico lightly.
"I think anybody can win the tournament," she said. "(Top seed) San Diego State's playing well, and New Mexico is always very good in the tournament."
UNLV is 2-3 in the MWC tournament under Olivier and 8-12 overall, advancing to the title game in 2002 -- the last year the Lady Rebels competed in the NCAA Tournament.
UNLV then went to the WNIT four straight seasons, from 2003 to 2006, but since has been shut out of the postseason. Olivier said returning there has been a goal for her coaching staff.
"The team actually has talked about it this year, where in years past we didn't really go there," she said. "We had a great nonconference schedule, and we had some really big wins. We feel like we've done a lot.
"The (NCAA) committee's definitely going to have to take a look at us, but it would be great to finish on a positive and to win out in the tournament."
In compiling their first winning season in six years, the Lady Rebels beat two teams in the top 40 of the Ratings Percentage Index -- Kansas State (No. 18) and Iowa (No. 40).
"We had some good wins early on, but I do think winning the (MWC) tournament is what's going to get us to the NCAA," said junior Kelli Thompson, who leads the team in scoring with 13.6 points per game.
Thompson has scored 20 points or more in her past three games.
"I'm taking better shots and finishing at the rim. I've just stepped it up a lot," she said. "I want to win the tournament more than anybody can imagine.
"If we stay together as a group, all 12 of us girls, we're unstoppable."
Should UNLV fall short of claiming the automatic NCAA bid, Thompson said she would welcome a trip to the WNIT.
"I just want to play, so if it's the NCAA or NIT, I'm going to be happy because I'm playing basketball," she said.
Smith, the school's all-time leading rebounder, agreed, but wants to cap her career with a trip to the NCAA tourney.
"The WNIT is still something to be proud of, but the way we worked this year, we definitely deserve to be in the NCAA," she said. "I really hope that's how it ends up."
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354.