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Hill: For La Rocque and Lady Rebels, it’s time.

Updated March 14, 2024 - 3:59 pm

The confetti falling from the rafters of the Thomas & Mack Center and ladders positioned under the rims in preparation for a ceremonial net-cutting told a celebratory tale for the Lady Rebels on Wednesday night.

It was a well-earned moment for the UNLV women’s basketball team after a phenomenal season and an unsurprising breeze through the Mountain West tournament.

The team worked hard for this and deserved the acknowledgement after a 66-49 victory against a completely overmatched San Diego State team that secured a third straight conference title and NCAA Tournament berth.

“We have to celebrate this victory just because it is so monumental to win the regular season, to win the conference championship,” coach Lindy La Rocque said. “While it’s expected, you still have to celebrate it.”

She’s right. Winning isn’t easy, especially when it’s expected. The Lady Rebels found that out Wednesday as a team that it had blown out by 59 points less than two weeks ago battled them to a draw for the first 20 minutes before talent and execution won out again.

“Winning is hard,” she said. “Winning championships is really hard, especially kind of when you are expected to. This group handles it with grace, with commitment, and willingness to do whatever it takes.”

But this was not and should not be the goal. La Rocque has built far too good a program to settle for just another conference title.

And she knows it.

“We want more,” La Rocque said. “(It’s) not just a happy-to-be-here type of feeling.”

It shouldn’t be. This is not an underdog making a magical run. The Lady Rebels are a team built for success beyond just a league they appear to have lapped several times over. They were favored to win by more than 20 points in the championship game after winning the regular-season title by five games.

To be clear, it’s wild La Rocque has created such overwhelming expectations in such a short period. This is a program that had just one NCAA Tournament appearance this century before she took the job in 2020 as the second-youngest Division I coach in the country. She has gone 102-21 and is on her way into the NCAA bracket for the third time.

The Las Vegas native is that good.

She has done nothing but win, with the 0-2 NCAA Tournament record sitting out there as the lone blemish on her résumé like a chipped nail on a beauty queen.

“I like Lindy, and I’m impressed with what they’ve done not only in our conference, but in the preseason. I thought they did a great job all year,” Fresno State coach Jaime White said after her team got trounced by 48 points in the quarterfinals. “I think it’s time for them to get past the first round (of the NCAA Tournament).”

The Lady Rebels aren’t shying away from that.

“We expect to win games (in the tournament),” star center center Desi-Rae Young said after cutting down the net yet again with her teammates. “That’s what we want to do. This is our third time here, and we expected to be here for a third time, so winning games is our highest expectation.”

All of the pieces are in place to live up to that belief.

The Lady Rebels showed that Wednesday. An explosive offensive team that had put up 100 points on San Diego State earlier this month was held to 20 in the first half and had to find a different way to win.

So the Lady Rebels held the Aztecs without a point for more than eight minutes until their shots started falling.

“They can hit you from a lot of different areas, and (La Rocque) does a great job,” San Diego State coach Stacie Terry-Hutson said. “I think they’re going to have a lot of success in the tournament when you get outside of the conference. They’re pretty poised for a long run in the NCAAs.”

It’s time.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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