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Lady Rebels’ historic season should be rewarded with better seed

Updated March 8, 2023 - 11:10 pm

The Mountain West championship trophy presented Wednesday night to Lindy La Rocque was heavier than the one she handled last season.

So heavy in fact that she promptly passed it to tournament MVP Desi-Rae Young, ceding the celebratory spotlight to the Lady Rebels forward (and rightful two-time Mountain West Player of the Year) as she embraced her 4-month old daughter, Ellie Cunningham.

Along with the euphoria she helped inspire.

“Lindy is a young coach, and with her just having a baby, she came back stronger than ever,” Young said. “We respect her as a mother. As a coach. As a mentor. I couldn’t ask for a better coach.”

The No. 21 Lady Rebels have become a mid-major power under La Rocque and should remain one so long as she stands on their sideline. That they established with their second consecutive conference tournament title via a 71-60 victory over Wyoming at the Thomas &Mack Center.

They’re 52-9 against Mountain West opponents under La Rocque, including the results of tournament play.

They haven’t lost a conference game since March 2, 2022, and should head to the NCAA Tournament with a much more favorable seed than the No. 13 they were assigned a year ago.

Pedigree … and then some

ESPN’s Bracketology pegs the Lady Rebels as a No. 12 seed in one of the tournament’s Seattle regions. It’s where they’ve been slotted all season.

Incorrectly at that.

They were underseeded last season as a No. 13 and nearly eliminated fourth-seeded Arizona, then the defending national runner-up, falling 72-67.

They brought back four starters: Young, all-conference senior guards Essence Booker and Justice Ethridge, and 3-point specialist Alyssa Durazao-Frescas — meaning pedigree alone suggests they’re better than the seed they’re predicted to have.

But they have more than pedigree working in their favor amid one of the greatest seasons in program history.

Their victory over Wyoming was their 22nd in a row, meaning only defending national champion South Carolina has a longer winning streak. They ran the table in the Mountain West. Won the conference tournament … again. Established a single-season program record for victories with 31 and counting.

Only three other programs have amassed 30 victories like the Lady Rebels, who last loss Dec. 18 to Oklahoma State, the fourth-place finisher in the Big 12.

A No. 12 seed would stand to undermine everything they accomplished and cap the capabilities of the programs in the Mountain West. La Rocque is building a powerhouse at the one she coaches. It shouldn’t be held against hers that her coaching counterparts haven’t yet done the same.

“People said kind of midway, ‘Oh, you can afford a loss to really get them back on track,’ … No, we didn’t need to,” said La Rocque, who declined to suggest where UNLV should be seeded.

“They just have a different bravado about them that they went out there and performed and played and figured out how to win a lot of games. A lot.”

‘This team is special’

Gonzaga is slated to be a No. 9 seed, per ESPN, despite falling Tuesday in the championship game of the West Coast Conference, another traditional one-bid league. The Bulldogs also lost a regular-season game in the league.

Nonconference victories months ago over Tennessee and overrated Louisville (ranked No. 7 preseason, unranked now) apparently carry a lot of weight.

Even Middle Tennessee is pegged to be a No. 10 seed despite two losses in Conference USA, another one-bid league. The Lady Raiders too beat Louisville. (Apparently, that’s the key.)

The Lady Rebels deserve at least as much respect as those two programs figure to get, and the tournament’s selection committee has until Sunday to realize that.

“This team is special,” La Rocque said. “We know who we are. We know how we want to play. We’re excited. We have a lot of great talent. I’m excited to see where Sunday brings.”

Should be something better than a 12 seed.

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

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