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Graney: Booker comes through late as Lady Rebels win 18th straight

How appropriate, yes?

Essence Booker. The guard from Spring Valley High who took detours to UNR and Ball State before coming home. One of four honored on a Senior Salute afternoon for the UNLV women’s basketball team Saturday.

Essence Booker. The one who didn’t want to stay in Las Vegas following her prep graduation and yet has now helped engineer two of the best seasons in Lady Rebels history.

Booker would score six of her team’s final eight points (all via free throws) and assist on the other two as UNLV held off San Diego State 65-59 before a program-record 2,993 at Cox Pavilion.

Also celebrated were Justice Ethridge, Keyana Wilfred and former UNLV player Jade Thomas, who medically retired after last season.

“It couldn’t have (ended any better),” Booker said. “I’m just glad we won. I’m glad that I got to be part of this team, this group, with this coaching staff. Coming back to end my career in Las Vegas … it has been exciting.”

She’s not done.

Neither are the No. 24 Lady Rebels.

Unbeaten at home

It’s official. Winners of 18 straight, UNLV is the school’s first women’s team to go undefeated at home in a season since 1979. It’s also the first to run the table when playing out of Cox Pavilion. And it just keeps chasing goals.

UNLV next plays at UNR on Tuesday, when the Lady Rebels — 27-2 overall — can secure the perfection of an 18-0 conference record.

“This team is determined to do that, and it’s not something we ever put out there,” said UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque. “This is all them. They want it.

“It has been special. New things we learn about ourselves, what this team is doing historically. Our fans (this season) never saw us lose at home, and that’s something to be really proud of. It takes a real commitment to working hard and doing the right things and trusting each other and playing hard.”

It wasn’t easy to get a 27th win.

UNLV led 32-31 at halftime because sophomore forward Alyssa Brown willed her team to stay in a game it at one point trailed the Aztecs by 10. Brown already had eight points and 11 rebounds at intermission — she would finish with 14 and 12 — a positive for a Lady Rebels team that shot just 33 percent over the opening 20 minutes.

But then junior center Desi-Rae Young (15 points, 11 rebounds) began heating up, and Booker (12 points, four assists) began leading as only she can in the most critical of moments.

She returned last year and was one of only four Mountain West players to rank among the league’s top 15 in scoring, assists and steals. Returned and made an immediate impact.

She didn’t shoot it well Saturday (3-of-11) and had five turnovers. But when it mattered most …

“Whenever the game is close and on the line, I have the ball in Essence’s hands,” La Rocque said. “That’s what our team knows and what we trust. No matter how she has played the previous 38 minutes, she’s a leader, a senior, experienced, and I know she’s going to make the right play.”

A growing theme

Those four honored stood at mid-court following the final buzzer, following the 18th straight win and knowing that they had gone undefeated at home, flowers in hands and jerseys adorned in glass frames. There were hugs and smiles and photos and autographs.

There was a finality to it and yet not one at all.

They and their teammates have bigger dreams, more goals to chase.

“I think we have a special team, but I also know the job isn’t done yet,” said Ethridge, who finished with 13 points and six rebounds. “We still have a game in Reno, and we’re excited to get ready for the conference tournament.

“It’s a bittersweet moment and kind of sad, knowing this is the final time I get to play a game on this court. But we’re not done yet.”

Sort of a growing theme around this group.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter

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