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Lady Rebels’ 1989 Sweet 16 run remains program standard

All Geannine Jordan wanted to do was watch some TV in peace.

A forward for the 1988-89 Lady Rebels, she and her teammates arrived in Boulder, Colorado, two days early to acclimate to the altitude ahead of the matchup between No. 6-seeded UNLV and No. 3 Colorado in the second round of the 1989 NCAA Tournament.

But when Jordan turned the television on, she discovered there was only one channel, featuring a documentary of sorts about the Buffaloes.

“For two days, we’re sitting there watching you and your team talk about us,” Jordan said. “So it was on.”

By halftime, UNLV star forward Pauline Jordan — Geannine Jordan’s twin sister — had a triple-double, the first in program history. She finished with 22 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks as the Lady Rebels upset the Buffaloes 84-74.

That victory earned UNLV the program’s first and only trip to the Sweet 16, a feat this year’s Lady Rebels will try to match starting Friday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The 1988-89 squad was led by coach Jim Bolla, the winningest coach in Lady Rebels history (300-120), who died in October at 70.

The team was built around Pauline Jordan, who averaged 18.5 points and 12.9 rebounds, but the Lady Rebels also had a strong supporting cast. Starting point guard Linda Staley returned, and 6-foot-6-inch freshman center Merlelynn Lange provided size in the middle to support Jordan.

DeNise Ballenger and Tammy Moore, experienced former junior college players, were strong options at guard, along with emerging sophomore Vicki Lander, to play beside Staley. Sophomore Mandy Hannah, Pauline’s twin sister Geannine Jordan, seniors Kim Crawford and Shari Netzel and junior Shelly Ray all provided depth on the wings.

All of the players arrived at UNLV with a long list of accolades. Lander was the Indiana state scoring champion as a senior in high school. Lange was already a member of the Canadian national team. Moore was a junior college All-American in Illinois. Staley, Lander, Hannah and the Jordan twins all received All-American recognition during their prep years.

Sparingly used freshman forward Lori Brotherson, a walk-on, was the 1987-88 Review-Journal female preps athlete of the year.

“If you weren’t an All-American, this wasn’t the team for you,” Geannine Jordan said.

The Lady Rebels began the season on a 13-game winning streak and swept aside a nonconference schedule that included Oregon State, Oklahoma State and Southern California.

UNLV’s conference season wasn’t quite as smooth. It suffered its first loss of the season on the road against Hawaii and was swept by Big West rivals Long Beach State and San Diego State. However, the Lady Rebels still finished second in the conference with a 13-5 record.

The Lady Rebels rediscovered their rhythm entering the Big West tournament before running into Long Beach State in the conference championship game. UNLV lost 89-81 despite Pauline Jordan scoring a career-high 38 points and grabbing 17 rebounds.

“If she got the offensive rebound, she wasn’t passing,” Geannine Jordan said. “She was going to spin, step through and have people hanging off her arms. You don’t see that type of force now.”

The conference tournament disappointment didn’t keep UNLV out of the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Rebels earned a No. 6 seed, its first March Madness appearance since 1986, and easily handled No. 11 Utah 67-53 in the first round.

Jordan’s triple-double six days later put UNLV in the Sweet 16.

The Lady Rebels drew No. 2 Texas for the next round, and headed to Austin, Texas, expecting to notch another upset.

Geannine Jordan said playing in front of around 15,000 fans was quite a change for the Lady Rebels after playing most of their games in the South Gym. Staley recalls the environment at the Frank Erwin Center being one of the most special atmosphere’s she ever played in.

“I just remember being like, ‘Wow, this is probably what women’s basketball is supposed to be like,’” Staley said.

UNLV’s tournament run came to an end in Austin. Pauline Jordan and Lander scored 22 apiece, but Geannine Jordan remembers Texas’ size being simply too much to handle. The Longhorns won 88-77.

Still, the accomplishments of the 1988-89 season set the foundation for the team’s historic 1989-90 season, a campaign that saw the Lady Rebels reach as high as No. 2 in the national rankings before losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“When we stepped on that court, we had one goal in mind,” Geannine Jordan said, “and that was to win.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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