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Gordon: Lindy La Rocque executes plan at UNLV in short order

Updated March 9, 2022 - 11:04 pm

We knew Lindy La Rocque could coach.

That Desi-Rae Young could finish inside and rebound. That Essence Booker could score, dribble and pass. That Alyssa Durazo-Frescas and Justice Ethridge could shoot and defend. That Khayla Rooks could space the floor on offense and defend the interior on defense. That UNLV’s reserves could supplement — and for stretches supplant — the starters.

We learned this year that the Lady Rebels can win the Mountain West’s regular-season title.

Now we know they can dance, too.

UNLV’s women’s basketball team is NCAA Tournament bound for the first time since 2002, courtesy of three wins in three days during the conference tournament at Thomas & Mack Center.

They clinched on Wednesday night their first conference-tournament title since 1994 with a 75-65 victory over sixth-seeded Colorado State. A victory comprised of the things that previously powered them to their second-ever regular season conference crown: ball and player movement, cohesive team defense, precise execution and timely shot making down the stretch.

They took turns dancing near half court and cutting the net from the basket, leaving the final strand for La Rocque, the Las Vegas native and former Durango star who in two years has the Lady Rebels (26-6), well, exactly where she planned for them to be.

“The belief started like the second I got the job,” she said. “You have to believe you can do it before really you can ever do it. Then, it’s just kind of trusting that.”

The vision

They were 13-17 during the 2019-20 season, prompting the dismissal of the previous coaching staff and the hiring of La Rocque. She’d played at Stanford. Coached there, too. Knew how to win and planned to win at UNLV in short order.

The Lady Rebels had lacked an identity and were mired in mediocrity. Unacceptable at Stanford and unacceptable now at Cox Pavilion under La Rocque’s watch. They quickly conformed to her expectations, finishing second in the league during the 2020-21 regular season.

But they weren’t good enough last season and La Rocque knew it.

So she tapped into the transfer portal and constructed a roster suited to play a modern style of basketball. The successes of last season certainly helped. The tangible change in culture and expectation attracted the players that would round out the roster.

“My first phone call with Lindy, she literally answered the phone and she got right to it,” said Booker, the tournament’s MVP who previously played at UNR and Ball State. “It wasn’t ‘Hi, my name is Lindy La Rocque.’ It was ‘We’re trying to win a championship. What are you doing?’ … She just stated what we were trying to do from the jump.”

Booker’s pledge gave the Lady Rebels an explosive scorer and creative passer from the point. Rooks, formerly of Washington, is a floor-spacing big. Youngstown State transfer Nneka Obiazor is a bruising post player — and the Mountain West’s Sixth Player of the Year.

The trio of transfers, combined with returners like Young and Ethridge and freshmen guards Durazo-Frescas and Kiara Jackson, allow UNLV to play the way La Rocque wants to.

With pace and space and versatility and creativity.

“You do need to some talented players,” she said. “To be able to get them in recruiting, our freshman class has been critical and our transfers have been huge. … They could already kind of feel what was going on here.”

Time to dance

The climb atop the celebratory ladder isn’t new for La Rocque, who reached four Final Fours and a national championship during her playing career and a fifth as an assistant.

But the one Wednesday night was especially surreal. She’s a head coach now and a precocious one at that, cutting that final piece of twine at her hometown university.

“It’s one thing to believe it and it’s another thing to go out there and get the job done,” she said. “It’s really, really special.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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