Rising Lady Rebels ‘putting pieces together’ just in time

What looked like a rebounding year for UNLV’s women’s basketball team could culminate in a way few thought possible when the week began.

It’s still hard to believe the seventh-seeded Lady Rebels, with a 14-17 record, are two wins from an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

"I always knew we had a good team," said UNLV freshman forward Jamie Smith, who averaged 18 points and 13 rebounds in victories over Brigham Young and Texas Christian in the first two rounds of the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

"It’s just a matter of putting all the pieces together, and in these last couple games we’ve definitely put these pieces together well."

UNLV beat No. 6 seed BYU 66-58 on Tuesday and No. 3 TCU 84-75 on Wednesday.

The Lady Rebels will play No. 2 San Diego State (22-6) at 2:30 p.m. today in the semifinals at the Thomas & Mack Center. No. 1 Utah (20-9) will meet No. 4 New Mexico (22-9) at noon.

UNLV’s advancement has been the surprise of the tournament, even though the Lady Rebels showed positive signs late in the season by playing well against good opponents.

"I don’t want anyone to wake up," coach Kathy Olivier said. "Our team’s doing a very good job. They’re very focused. I keep saying that, but it’s a different kind of focus than they had during some games in the season.

"We’ve learned how to sustain our focus. You’ve got to learn how to do that. It doesn’t become automatic."

Unlike the two previous opponents, San Diego State probably will play man-to-man defense against the Lady Rebels. That could create opportunities for UNLV center Shamela Hampton if her teammates can get her the ball. She is averaging 19.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in the tournament.

"I like that they play (man to man)," Hampton said. "We’re not going to see any zone, so my teammates have to hit shots, and I have to score inside."

San Diego State center Paris Johnson is a major concern for the Lady Rebels. Johnson had a league-record nine blocked shots in Saturday’s regular-season finale against UNLV, a 61-55 Aztecs victory at Cox Pavilion. Many of those rejections occurred when Hampton was out because of foul trouble.

If the Lady Rebels beat San Diego State today, it will continue their trend of avenging regular-season sweeps. They lost both meetings against BYU and TCU during the season before ousting them from the tournament.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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