The UNLV women's basketball team took a big step forward in the regular season, but its momentum came to an abrupt halt in the postseason.
After getting upset by New Mexico in its Mountain West Conference tournament opener, the Lady Rebels suffered a season-ending 71-63 loss to Saint Mary's (Calif.) in the first round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament on Thursday night at McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, Calif.
The Lady Rebels (22-10) trailed virtually the entire way, falling behind by 16 points in the first half and 19 in the second half before staging a furious rally.
Leading scorer Kelli Thompson led the charge, scoring 21 of her career-high 31 points in the second half to help UNLV pull within four with seven minutes left.
But that's as close as the Lady Rebels got as the Gaels (22-10) sank 12 of 16 free throws down the stretch.
Point guard Mia Bell, a Durango High product, added 16 points, and guard Danielle Miller had nine, but no other player scored more than three for UNLV, which made 4 of its first 20 shots and finished 21-for-67 (31.3 percent) from the field.
"We've gone into shooting lulls, and it's hard to continue to stop a team on every possession," coach Kathy Olivier said. "We went through some rough spells, but we continued to fight together."
Jackie Nared had 22 points and eight rebounds and Jasmine Smith 21 points for Saint Mary's, which shot 47.1 percent from the field (24-for-51) and outrebounded UNLV 44-36.
The Lady Rebels' four senior post players -- Jamie Smith, Lenita Sanford, Sandrine Nzeukou and Markiell Styles -- struggled, combining for five points.
The Gaels went on a 10-1 run to go up 18-8 midway through the first half and extended the lead to 30-14 before heading into halftime ahead 34-21.
After Nared hit a short jumper to give Saint Mary's its largest lead at 42-23, Thompson almost single-handedly led UNLV back. The junior guard scored eight straight points, sinking back-to-back 3-pointers and a layup, to spark a 12-0 surge that made it 42-35 with 15:20 left.
The Gaels led by 10 with less than 10 minutes left when the Lady Rebels went on a 6-0 run, capped by a putback by Thompson, to make it 51-47 with seven minutes to go.
Smith sank two baskets to put Saint Mary's up 56-47 and nailed a 3 from the wing to make it 59-51 with about four to play. Bell answered with a 3, but the Gaels sealed the win from the line.
The Lady Rebels enjoyed their first winning season and postseason appearance in six years and reached 20 wins for the first time in eight years.
Olivier chalked up the postseason losses to a learning experience.
"Down the stretch the intensity level got higher and the games got more physical. We've got to learn how to play at that level," she said. "This is a great springboard for us for the future. We started great. Now we need to finish strong."
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354.