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Iowa Hawkeyes have strong Las Vegas connection

Updated April 1, 2023 - 5:29 pm

Cami Christensen and Jan Jensen have been friends for so long, neither can recall when they met.

“Jan says we have been friends since we were babies,” Christensen said. “So it’s about when we were 1-2 years old. I’ll go with that.”

Christensen is the GM and president of Westgate Las Vegas. Jensen is associate head coach of the University of Iowa’s women’s basketball team.

The Hawkeyes are playing LSU on Sunday afternoon for the NCAA national championship. The game is scheduled to air live at 12:30 p.m. on ABC. The Hawkeyes upset top-ranked and previously undefeated South Carolina 77-73 in the Final Four on Saturday at American Airlines Arena in Dallas.

The sensational point guard Caitlin Clark scored 41 points to lead the Hawkeyes. LSU beat Virginia Tech in the other national semifinal.

Christensen was at Friday’s game. She was also at the Hawkeyes’ Elite Eight victory over Louisville at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena on March 26. It’s clear the Westgate exec has a rooting interest, rooted in Kimballton, Iowa. Christensen and Jensen grew up together there.

“We played basketball together for the Elk Horn-Kimballton Lady Danes,” Christensen said of her prep hoops squad. “Our farms were next to each other, when we were growing up. We rode motorcycles and played sports and grew corn and soy beans. Well, our dads were farmers. We just played.”

Jensen is the top assistant for Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder. These two go way back, too. Bluder coached Jensen at Drake when Jensen led the country in scoring with a 29.6 per-game average. This month, Jensen was named the 2023 Division I Assistant Coach of the Year by the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

Jensen is in her 23rd season with the Iowa women’s program, and her 19th as associate head coach. Jensen has helped lead Iowa to 21 postseason appearances, including 17 NCAA Tournament berths. Iowa has advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1993. Sunday is the Hawkeyes’ first appearance in the national championship game.

Iowa’s staff has picked up some road victories, as it were, at the Westgate.

We met Jensen a few years ago, at a birthday party for Christensen at the hotel’s fancy Verona Sky Villa suite (with the requisite, strolling mariachi band performing to the group’s delight). Bluder is also a regular visitor to Westgate.

Last weekend, Christensen joined Jensen for the Elite Eight as Jensen’s father, Dale Jensen, had become ill the weekend of the Iowa-Louisville game in Seattle. The elder Jensn died the day of the Hawkeyes’ emotional victory.

“It was very difficult,” Christensen said. “I had just seen him Friday, and he died Sunday morning, a few hours before the game. Our families have been very close.”

Jensen shared that sentiment via text on Saturday morning.

“It means everything. We have shared so much through our entire lives, and I mean our entire lives,” Jensen said. “We’ve been together since our church nursery days. To watch Cami have the success that she has had throughout her career, has been so amazing. I’m so proud of her. We both feel so blessed that we get to share in each others lives, the good times and the harder times. We always have each other.”

During the tournament, Christensen usually hosts small Hawkeyes watch parties at the Westgate SuperBook. Jensen sends Hawkeyes’ T-shirts to the hotel. Westgate PR exec Gordon Prouty donned black and gold for Friday’s game. Expect strong Hawkeye support again Sunday, however it shakes out.

Through it all, Westgate has the city’s unofficial Hawkeye hoops headquarters.

“It’s just thrilling to see her do this. Amazing,” Christensen says. “She’s an incredible human, and I still remember us as little kids. What a great way to grow up.”

Tease this …

Austin “Chumlee” Russell said in an interview last week he’s looking forward to visiting one specific city for the second season of History’s “Pawn Stars Do America.” As in the first season, “Pawn Stars” Rick Harrison, Cory Harrison and Chumlee take a second show across the country.

“I’m actually most excited about Salem, up in Massachusetts, which I’ve always wanted to visit,” Chumlee said in a phone chat. “It’s famous for the witch hunt, I’m hoping it’s a little spooky. I do photograph as a hobby and I’m looking forward to photographing some really cool stuff.”

Albuquerque, N.M.; Fort Worth, Texas; Minneapolis; Detroit; Tampa, Fla.; and Lexington, K.Y. are all on the list. So is Las Vegas. The series begins filming its 14-city season this month. Premiere date is to be determined, then announced.

Dea’s service

A graveside memorial service for Gloria Dea will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at Davis Funeral Homes at 6200 South Eastern Avenue. Dea died March 18 in Las Vegas at age 100. She was the first person to perform magic on what would be the Strip, at El Rancho Vegas on May 14, 1941. This is a simple service for a woman whose story was uncovered late in her life, and amazed the Vegas entertainment community.

Cool Hang Alert

The multi-talented Live Music Society is back at Rhythm & Riffs at Mandalay Bay at 11 p.m. Thursday. The band tackles multiple genres. Last week it held court for a few thousand visitors to Linq Promenade, pedestrians who happened upon the band and hung out to party. Lee Curran opens with an acoustic set. No cover.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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