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Graney: Lady Rebels could be better than record-setting team

They chase championships. That part hasn’t changed. It won’t with Lindy La Rocque in charge.

But it will take some doing for the UNLV women’s basketball team to match or surpass last year’s accomplishments.

Or will it?

“I think we’re similar but different,” said La Rocque, the team’s fourth-year coach. “Our leadership is different. But we are capable of being better. I knew coming in we had talent. Now, we’re just waiting to see how the pieces all settle in together.

“We still have a lot to uncover. We still haven’t played our best yet.”

More scary news for Mountain West opponents.

Still winning big

If you remember: UNLV finished last season 31-3 overall.

It went a spotless 18-0 in league play, won its second straight conference tournament title and advanced to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament. It’s a tough act to follow.

It also lost cornerstones like Essence Booker, Justice Ethridge and Keyana Wilfred. They were players that helped build the premier program on campus. Others have already stepped forward to fill the gaps this season. UNLV hasn’t missed a step.

It finished the nonconference schedule 10-1 with wins against Arizona and Oklahoma. The Lady Rebels were ranked 23rd nationally before falling at Seton Hall for their only loss thus far.

The UNLV team that opens Mountain West play against Utah State on Saturday can be every bit as good or better than the record-setting side of last season. That doesn’t mean it won’t drop games in conference — going undefeated often takes as much good fortune as it does skill — but March could be a different story.

The key now is advancing to the NCAAs and winning once there. The Lady Rebels dropped first-round games to Arizona and Michigan the past two years.

Beating the Wildcats 72-53 and the Sooners 92-76 this season gave UNLV a level of confidence it might have previously lacked. Names of the front of opposing jerseys sometimes matter.

“We’re not going to be shy about it — those were huge wins,” La Rocque said. “That was a little bit of the monkey on our back the last couple years. We couldn’t get over that Power Five hump of beating those teams. We knew we were good enough but hadn’t performed on the stage we needed to.”

It’s important the other Mountain West teams follow suit or at least show improvement. Seeding and matchups make for NCAA storylines. The Mountain West’s annual power numbers do little favor for those representing the league when the bracket is set in March.

An example: UNLV right now is 25th in the NET rankings. The next-closest Mountain West team is Colorado State at 61. Wyoming comes after that at 111. Lower and lower they go. Utah State — the opponent visiting Saturday — is 331.

Message received

It all means La Rocque’s message needs to be even more on point.

She can’t allow her players to become complacent in a league where most everyone has circled the game against UNLV.

What led to the 18-0 Mountain West record last year was senior leadership that didn’t allow smugness. Winning at such a rate takes a laser focus. It’s that time again.

“My job is to poke them and push them in the right ways to stay disciplined and narrow-minded about the task at hand,” La Rocque said. “I think we’re pretty motivated to get conference play started. They want to win a championship. Every play and possession is for a conference championship now. Nonconference games don’t win you a championship. These ones do.

“And they’re really motivated by that.”

Better than last year?

It’s a big ask. But one UNLV is up for.

Should be a fun watch.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, 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 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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