Kathy Olivier looked at her UNLV roster before the season and saw the combination of a powerful inside game and a sharp-shooting outside attack.
She saw the ability to beat opponents with quickness, and Olivier couldn't wait to get her new top recruit, Lenita Sanford, on the basketball court.
This was the season, her third as UNLV's coach, that Olivier would show the program was on the right path.
Or so she thought.
"I'm kind of embarrassed about how optimistic I was," Olivier said.
The Lady Rebels enter the Mountain West Conference Tournament at a red-faced 11-19 and as the eighth seed. They play fifth-seeded Utah (14-16) at 4:30 p.m. today at the Thomas & Mack Center.
UNLV beat the Utes 51-47 at home in Saturday's regular-season finale.
If the Lady Rebels win, they face fourth-seeded Colorado State or ninth-seeded Air Force on Wednesday. UNLV split with both schools during the regular season, so solid efforts in the first two rounds could put the Lady Rebels on the path to Friday's semifinals against top-seeded Brigham Young.
But other than the highly unlikely event UNLV manages to win the conference tournament, thereby making the NCAA Tournament, the Lady Rebels still remain far from where Olivier hoped.
Senior guard Erica Helms was slowed after giving birth Sept. 22, and a knee injury plagued sophomore guard Mia Bell all season.
But the biggest blow was losing Sanford after 11 games to academics. Much was expected from the 6-foot-3-inch junior, and Sanford delivered early with averages of 8.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game as UNLV opened 5-6 against a schedule that included three ranked teams.
Sanford's academic struggles were no surprise because she attended three junior colleges. Olivier blames herself for not better monitoring the player.
"I just think I was stupid with that," said Olivier, who previously coached UCLA for 15 seasons. "I'm really mad at myself, really mad at myself.
"You have an academic support group, but you don't ever say they're in charge. I'm in charge. It's the dumbest thing I've ever done in all my years coaching -- all of them -- because I knew."
Sanford's absence has been noticeable because UNLV doesn't have another player with the combination of her physical and aggressive presence inside.
The result: a 6-13 record since Sanford was sent to the bench.
Perhaps Sanford would have helped UNLV late in games. The Lady Rebels have lost six times when within a possession in the final minute.
The program, which hasn't had a winning record in five years, could use a boost. Olivier, a former UNLV standout, is 38-55 in three seasons at her alma mater. She will return next season, but what happens beyond that is uncertain.
Athletic director Jim Livengood said he has every hope "at this point in time" Olivier will start winning.
"I don't think about my future; I think about what I can do for this program," Olivier said. "We need to do this for a lot of people."
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914.