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Lady Rebels charting own path

If there were traffic delays along East Tropicana Boulevard on Wednesday night, it was because President Obama had landed in town or perhaps Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas was trying to divert the accompanying motorcade to Mexico.

It was not because that, inside the home of a certain UNLV basketball team very much alive in the early race for a Mountain West Conference championship, open seats were difficult to find.

Kathy Olivier doesn’t stroll around campus acting the part of redheaded stepchild, doesn’t feel slighted in the least. She has, for the first time since returning to her alma mater nearly four years ago to try to rebuild the women’s program, a team capable of standing among the league’s best.

Here, in Cox Pavilion, a long jumper from the deafening cheers first-year men’s coach Dave Rice and his team have created inside the Thomas & Mack Center, exists a women’s side that won its 16th game by beating Boise State, 66-50.

The most UNLV wins under Olivier before now was 14.

UNLV is also 4-1 in conference. It won four league games all last season.

“I think everyone on our team is thinking we can (contend) for the conference,” Olivier said. “We don’t talk about it much. Every player worked extremely hard this past summer. They’re tired of not getting it done, so they’ve all made those extra sacrifices and commitments. It shows.

“They’re playing with more confidence. Obviously, we’d love to contend for the championship and a spot in the postseason. We’re just trying to find a way there.”

She knows this isn’t Storrs, Conn., or South Bend, Ind., or Knoxville, Tenn., that in this town, all teams play second fiddle to the one that competes not a few hundred feet from where hers does.

It’s what history dictates, that the men dominate all headlines, although you can bet there were more than a few nervous folks Wednesday as word arrived of Rice’s team going into overtime in Boise, Idaho.

This is also the first time since Olivier returned to the place she earned All-America honors in the late 1970s that UNLV has been any good. Her first team might have had the desired leadership of six seniors, but it also finished 14-18 overall and 5-11 in league.

Then those seniors left and it wasn’t any better for two years, meaning a combined record of 24-38 and 10 conference wins.

But this season is different. The Lady Rebels are 16-5 and a game behind first-place San Diego State in league. They held the Mountain West’s leading offense on Wednesday to 18 first-half points, forgot how to defend the opening seven minutes following intermission and then made the Broncos’ defense appear as weak as its numbers suggest.

I have no idea what Boise State was doing defensively most of the night, but it had nothing to do with stopping dribble penetration or protecting the lane. The Broncos did have some guy who might have been Kellen Moore (but probably not) sitting on the bench and holding up a blue laminated placard with the number 20 on it.

Memo to the Broncos: Find another number.

“We still have to take care of business the next two months,” UNLV senior forward Jamie Smith said. “The last three years have been kind of a letdown. But different people are stepping up at different times this season, and that’s key.”

It’s also key to know who you are and how best to succeed with that knowledge. They’re not erecting state-of-the-art practice facilities and selling out arenas and building marketing programs around and living and dying with women’s basketball here. Nor should they. Interest, not to mention tradition, sells.

But that doesn’t mean the strides Olivier and her team have taken this season should be discounted. Three women’s teams have winning records in conference today, and none has more overall victories than UNLV.

“I think what (Rice) is doing in his first season is unbelievable,” Olivier said. “His style of play and generating so much electricity in the Thomas & Mack — the whole deal is off the charts right now. It can definitely get some publicity for all our athletic programs, including ours. People hear the name UNLV and become interested.

“We’ll never go the negative route with our program. We’ll never say, ‘What about poor us?’ We need to take care of what we can take care of, and that’s winning games and continuing to improve each day.”

That part seems pretty secure right now.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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