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Graney: Lady Rebels flourish under Lindy La Rocque

It didn’t go exactly how Lindy La Rocque planned because — where have we heard this before? — a pandemic got in the way.

She came home last year to assume control of the UNLV women’s basketball program, a former Durango High star in her first season as a head coach.

As well as the Lady Rebels did on the court — they finished second in the Mountain West with a 13-5 record, and La Rocque was named Coach of the Year — they weren’t allowed to share much quality time off it. COVID-19 restrictions saw to that. Team gatherings away from the gym weren’t a reality.

“I feel like she wasn’t able to get to know us individually,” sophomore center Desi-Rae Young said. “That has all changed now. We’re bonded. We’re just living the life.”

And winning again while doing so.

New faces

You might think Year Two of a coach’s tenure should be easier than the previous season, that the teaching portion of things increases at a much faster rate. Not with a roster featuring eight new faces.

La Rocque, 32, said the Rebels had to take a few steps back before continuing forward, that breaking things down for those who weren’t with the team in 2020-21 made for a slower pace.

Doesn’t seem to be bothering them much.

UNLV is 17-4 overall, winners of seven straight and atop the conference at 9-1.

“She’s a thoughtful coach,” said Young, the league’s reigning Freshman of the Year. “She’s tough, but at the same time very encouraging. She lifts you up. She just wants us to work hard and win games. If we make a mistake, she’s about, ‘You got the next one. Get it out of your head. Go to the next play.’”

La Rocque’s resume is coated in success, having helped Stanford to four consecutive Final Fours and assisting on the staffs of, among others, Hall of Famers Sherri Coale at Oklahoma and then back at Stanford under Tara VanDerveer.

Looking ahead: Could it be one day that she is on a list to succeed the latter? Hey, no pressure.

Said one spectator who attended a recent UNLV film session: “The players have totally bought in. Nobody as much as fidgeted. It was very impressive.”

This is what La Rocque learned most as a first-year head coach: That every word, every conversation, every decision she makes is closely acknowledged by those in the program. That a leader doesn’t have the option of taking a day off.

“There is one of me and 12 players and five staff members,” she said. “They remember every word that comes out of my mouth. So you have 17 of them, and I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday. You just have to take all of it to heart and be really intentional with words and reactions. It matters to all of them.”

She left the corporate world when catching the coaching bug and wouldn’t change it for anything now. She pinches herself every day knowing that she directs the college program in her hometown. She uses words like rewarding and fulfilling. She insists any obstacle can be overcome when having such an impact on young lives.

“It’s an absolute joy,” she said.

Water works

It was after a 78-75 win at UNR last week — a game in which the Lady Rebels trailed by 12 — when her team welcomed La Rocque back into the locker room by dousing her with water. It also came after the Rebels won in Reno for the first time since 2017.

“A little birdie told me that I should take my shoes off so I didn’t ruin my heels,” La Rocque said. “I didn’t expect the full water show, but it was a great celebration for a huge victory for our program.”

It won’t be the last.

UNLV got a great one in her. It’s in good hands.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. 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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