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Lady Rebels advance to NCAA Tournament for 1st time in 20 years

Updated March 9, 2022 - 11:15 pm

UNLV junior Essence Booker almost gave the ball away.

With the Lady Rebels clinging to a four-point lead with 45 seconds left, Booker was stripped near the top of the key. She immediately fell on the ball, and coach Lindy La Rocque called a timeout with two seconds left on the shot clock.

La Rocque trusted her point guard. On the ensuing possession, Booker floated to the far corner, losing her defender. UNLV freshman Kiara Jackson found her with the inbounds pass. All alone, Booker rose for the game-clinching shot. She hit it, and the Lady Rebels were less than a minute from securing their first NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years.

“I kept telling myself I was going to make it,” Booker said. “They ended up doing something defensively that left me wide open, and I knocked it down.”

The clutch 3-pointer helped propel No. 1-seeded UNLV to a 75-65 win over No. 6 Colorado State on Wednesday night in the Mountain West women’s basketball tournament championship game at the Thomas & Mack Center.

The MW tournament title was the first in program history, and it sends the Lady Rebels (26-6) to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. They will find out Sunday their opponent and where they will play the first round. The Selection Show is scheduled for 5 p.m. on ESPN.

“I’ve cut a few nets in my day,” said La Rocque, whose team also won the MW’s regular-season title. “This one means a lot, if not the most. With this group, I’d do anything for them because I know they’d do anything for me. To say it is one thing, to believe it is another thing, and to go out and get the job done is something on a whole other level, and that’s what they did.”

Booker, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 25 points — including 10 in the first quarter — and five assists for UNLV, which took control after a slow start.

Guard Upe Atosu sparked Colorado State to an 11-2 lead, but UNLV rallied and led 24-19 after the first quarter.

The Lady Rebels extended their lead in the second quarter, mainly because of suffocating interior defense. Colorado State managed just four points in the paint in the first half, and the Rams’ starting forwards went 1-for-9 in the first 20 minutes as UNLV took a 38-31 halftime lead.

The Rams (21-11) fell behind by 13 points before making their run. Forward Karly Murphy finally found her shot, scoring 12 points in the second half. UNLV also committed four turnovers in the third quarter after giving the ball away just twice in the first half.

Colorado State continued to keep the game close in the fourth quarter. Led by junior McKenna Hofschild, who scored 27 points on 10-for-22 shooting, the Rams cut the deficit to two points before Booker and UNLV pulled away.

Booker got support from sophomore center Desi-Rae Young, the conference’s Player of the Year, who had 14 points and seven rebounds. They were joined by teammate Nneka Obiazor and Colorado State’s Hofschild and Atosu on the all-tournament team.

“I didn’t strive for getting tournament MVP coming into the tournament,” Booker said. “I was just trying to win, and I wanted to win with this group.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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