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Lady Rebels finally finding their groove

Three games is a small sample size, but if UNLV was going to do much this basketball season, the Lady Rebels were going to have to start somewhere.

Though they still have a long way to go before having a big say regarding which team wins the Mountain West, the Lady Rebels suddenly look like they could be a factor in March.

UNLV won its third game in a row, playing its most complete 40 minutes Wednesday night to dominate New Mexico 78-56 at Cox Pavilion.

The Lady Rebels (6-10, 3-1 MW) hadn’t put together back-to-back victories this season before the current streak, which began with wins at Air Force and UNR. This also is their longest winning streak since taking five in a row to end the 2011-12 regular season.

Coach Kathy Olivier said UNLV’s slow start was largely due to players trying to find their way after missing substantial time last season because of injuries, and in center Aley Rohde’s case, the NCAA transfer rule after she left Arizona.

“We’re just more in the groove,” Olivier said.

The Lady Rebels are getting it done with defense, turning opponents’ mistakes into easy points. UNLV entered the game first in the conference with 13.3 steals and 24.3 takeaways per game.

By halftime against New Mexico (7-8, 2-2), UNLV had outscored the Lobos 17-2 on points off turnovers and stolen the ball nine times to build a 40-23 lead. UNLV finished with 17 steals and 22 takeaways, outscoring New Mexico 27-14 on points off turnovers.

“We want to be the best defensive team in the conference, one of the best in the country,” said UNLV guard Mia Bell, who had nine points, 10 assists and three steals. “We have the players to be able to do that.”

The Lady Rebels led by as many as 31 points, allowing Olivier — who put 10 players on the court in the first half alone — to empty her bench. All 14 players got into the game for the first time this season.

Forward Alana Cesarz led the Lady Rebels with 15 points, one of three players in double figures.

“There are a lot of combinations that we can use, and it doesn’t seem there’s one perfect unit,” Olivier said. “We have a lot of different people that can step in, a lot of versatility.”

UNLV has beaten New Mexico three years in a row at Cox and hasn’t lost to the Lobos in the regular season since 2011. This victory was UNLV’s largest in the series since a 23-point win in 2003.

The Lady Rebels had the makings of a contender entering the season, returning most of their key players along with Rohde.

But then they lost 10 of their first 13 games.

They didn’t let that start do them in, however, and now the Lady Rebels are half a game behind conference co-leaders Colorado State and Fresno State, each 4-1 in league play.

“I think staying together as a team in the locker room (was key), not letting negativity float around,” Bell said. “It’s the understanding we can still reach the goals we set out in the beginning of the season. We set out to win the Mountain West championship, and that has nothing to do with our preseason.”

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

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