Lady Rebels hope for tournament spark

UNLV coach Kathy Olivier broke character before the season and talked about how optimistic she was about her basketball team.

The season didn’t play out that way, however, and now Olivier and her players enter the Mountain West tournament still searching for answers about what went wrong.

Maybe they will find them just in time for today’s 4:30 p.m. tournament opener against San Jose State at the Thomas &Mack Center.

UNLV (12-18, 9-9 MW) enters as the seventh seed; San Jose State (11-18, 5-13) is seeded 10th. The winner plays No. 2 Fresno State (19-10, 13-5) at 6 p.m. Tuesday.

“I still think we have a good group,” Olivier said. “I still think we’re talented. I still think that we can do damage in the tournament. I still think that we can go on a four- or five-game tear.”

Olivier doesn’t have just blind faith in her team. The Lady Rebels were ravaged by injuries last season, but managed to go 8-8 in league play. They returned six players who had been regular starters at various points, including point guard Mia Bell and forward Alana Cesarz, who had major injuries last season.

The Rebels also returned forward Rejane Verin, who was the Mountain West Newcomer of the Year last season, and welcomed Arizona transfer Aley Rohde, a 6-foot-4-inch center.

This season turned into a test of nerves, challenging the players’ confidence as the losses piled up and creating frustration throughout the team.

Now the Lady Rebels embrace this opportunity to try to put a much more positive finish on the season.

“It absolutely is a second chance,” Bell said. “Anything can happen. You just have to be ready for a war.”

But can UNLV pull it off?

The Lady Rebels haven’t won a tournament game since 2009, which was at the end of Olivier’s first season.

UNLV defeated San Jose State 90-76 at home on Jan. 29. But should the Lady Rebels advance, they’ll face a Fresno State team that routed them twice this season.

“We know that crazy things always happen,” Cesarz said. “We want to be one of those teams that goes on that crazy run.”

Olivier, in her sixth season at her alma mater, has done plenty of soul-searching and come to some significant conclusions.

On the players’ part, she said they need to do a better job of working together and sticking with the plan.

On her end, Olivier acknowledged she needs to better recognize moments in games that need timeouts to calm the team while also handling her relationships with the players in a different manner.

“As a team, you have to find a way to do it together and trust what we’re doing and trust each other,” Olivier said. “Once you try to do everything, it’s not good for a team. It’s just not.

“I think for me, I can’t do what I did before. I’m someone who takes a lot of pride in being a players’ coach, so to speak. I feel like sometimes people take advantage of that. I’m not singling out one person because it’s not.

“I think what I need to understand is that I continue to push them and hold them accountable and know that I can expect more from them. It’s very obvious this group wants that.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter @markanderson65.