Two of its top players out with injuries.
A demanding nonconference schedule.
The weight of high expectations.
All combined for a tough beginning to the season for the UNLV women’s basketball team. But now, with the team back to full strength, the Lady Rebels think they can fulfill preseason predictions and make a run at another Mountain West regular-season championship.
“I think it’s a team that people might look at our nonconference (schedule) and be like, ‘We can kind of overlook them,’” UNLV guard Nikki Wheatley said. “But I think the talent’s definitely there, and now the chemistry’s there. I think we’re definitely a team that should be watched out for.”
UNLV (2-9) opens conference play against Colorado State (6-5) at 6 p.m. Wednesday in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Back for the Lady Rebels are post players Katie Powell (right ankle) and Paris Strawther (broken finger on left hand). Powell was injured Dec. 1 and Strawther on Nov. 13, and last season they combined to average 24.8 points and 15 rebounds a game.
“For the other players, there’s a positive because they got a lot of experience,” UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said. “We played different combinations. Everyone’s getting an opportunity out there. We’re at full speed now with 15 players and hopefully we can get on the winning track again.”
Even with those players, the Lady Rebels would have had a difficult time navigating a schedule that included six teams with RPI rankings in the top 100, four of those in the top 50.
That schedule was put together with an eye on conference play.
“Last year, we played a very tough nonconference schedule, so we’re doing it again,” Olivier said. “We thought it’s a very good thing for our team, so we kept them very positive. They kept each other very positive.”
UNLV ended nonconference play with a 56-53 victory over Florida on Dec. 21 at Cox Pavilion, breaking a six-game losing streak.
“That was a big uplifter,” Wheatley said. “I think we were all frustrated. Everybody on this team wants to win, so I think that was a perfect kind of transition into conference because everyone is working so hard, but to lose how many games we did in a row really starts to put a downer on the team.”
This is a team that shared last season’s regular-season championship with Boise State and was picked just behind the Broncos this season. UNLV received four first-place votes.
So there was the weight of the expectations as well as a beefy schedule and those two key injuries that hung over the team in the first two months.
But now the Lady Rebels are ready to prove the early believers correct.
“Everyone’s heads are up,” Olivier said. “They come in and they bust every day. They’re very coachable, which is huge when you’re losing. You think you know everything, and they kind of go into a shell. They haven’t done that at all. They’re excited to start the season, so to speak. That’s what the conference schedule is, it’s time to start the season.”
Who: UNLV women at Colorado State
When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Moby Arena, Fort Collins, Colo.
TV/Radio: UNLVRebels.com (stream); Portal.Stretchinternet.com/unlv