Kelli Thompson becomes one of the top players in Lady Rebel history

Kelli Thompson would watch her older brother take it to future NBA All-Stars on the courts in Southern California, his talent unquestioned as he would outplay James Harden, Russell Westbrook and other top players.

Tyre Thompson didn’t take it easy on his sister, either, forcing her to improve her game to compete with him.

“Her brother was one of the best players, if not the best, in LA,” UNLV women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier said. “He was amazing. That’s who she went to the park with all the time. That’s why she kind of plays like a guy.”

Tyre Thompson never took his game to the college level. The closest he came was at Santa Ana (Calif.) College, his lack of attention to academics derailing whatever future he had in the sport.

Kelli Thompson, with her brother’s constant encouragement, avoided traveling the same path, overcoming a slow start in the classroom to earn a 3.0 GPA, put herself in position to graduate this summer as one of the top players in UNLV history.

“She’s so gifted, so gifted, and has put so much time and energy into this program,” Olivier said. “She’s worked hard for us for four years.”

The 6-foot senior guard will play at Cox Pavilion for the final time at 3 p.m. today when the Lady Rebels (10-17, 6-7 Mountain West) host UNR (7-19, 2-11).

At least 20 family members, including brother Tyre, will be in attendance, and they closely have tracked a career that places Thompson near the top of many of UNLV’s statistical categories.

She is fourth in career points at 1,781 and soon should move into third. Thompson also is the all-time leader in 3-pointers with 232.

This season, she averages 18.7 points and 6.1 rebounds.

“What I like about her is that she’s improved every part of her game,” Olivier said. “When she came in here, she was just a shooter. Like this year, she’s taken the most charges on our team. If you would’ve said that to me her freshman year, I would’ve looked at you like, ‘Yeah, right.’ She’s really improved her defense. She gets to the line. She’s rebounding for us.”

The player-coach relationship began at basketball camps when Olivier coached UCLA and Thompson played at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High School.

But Olivier wasn’t the only coach who dreamed of putting Thompson in her college’s uniform. Thompson was ranked by one scouting service as the nation’s No. 95 prospect and by another as the 19th-best wing player.

And Thompson was a winner — Long Beach Poly won four state championships at California’s highest level.

Though Thompson wanted to play for Olivier, she didn’t want to be in what then was the Pac-10 Conference.

“I felt like I was going to play all the same people from high school,” Thompson said. “(Olivier) sold me on the fact I could come here and make something out of nothing.”

Thompson got her wish to play for Olivier and in a different conference when Olivier became UNLV’s coach in 2008. Thompson chose the Lady Rebels over UCLA, Louisville and Washington State.

The transition to UNLV wasn’t easy for Thompson, who missed her family and was homesick her first year in Las Vegas, gaining and losing weight, oversleeping and not sleeping enough.

She also didn’t put much effort into academics in the beginning. Thompson preferred to shoot her way through her college basketball career rather than apply herself to better understand the game and what it takes to improve.

Thompson slowly took school more seriously, and as her grades rose, so did her yearning to learn.

She also showed up at the coaches’ offices more often and watched video on her own.

In addition, the influence of family remains as strong as ever.

Thompson wears No. 45 in honor of her aunt Lori Thalley, who died at age 45 from leukemia.

And Tyre Thompson remains a constant source of motivation. He gives her a positive and negative assessment after each game.

“He’s the reason why I picked up a ball,” Kelli Thompson said. “He’s the reason why I’m the basketball player I am today.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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