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Lady Rebels already looking forward to next season

UNLV women’s basketball coach Lindy La Rocque pulled her starters trailing by double digits to Arizona with 43 seconds left Saturday in the NCAA Tournament.

Immediately after leaving the court, freshman guard Alyssa Durazo-Frescas went to fifth-year forward Khayla Rooks. Rooks, the only player on the team without the option to return next season, embraced her teammate before taking a seat to watch the final minute of her college career.

“This was definitely my best and most favorite college year,” said Rooks, a Washington transfer. “This team is special, this coaching staff is special, the supporting staff is amazing. I’m so blessed to be a part of it.”

The season ended with the 13th-seeded Lady Rebels losing to fourth-seeded Arizona 72-67 in the first round at McKale Center in Tucson, Arizona. But La Rocque has laid a solid foundation in her second season at the school.

“We know we belong here,” she said after guiding the team to a 26-7 record.

The Lady Rebels’ biggest accomplishment was ending a 20-year drought from the NCAA Tournament. They also won the Mountain West regular-season title, their first outright conference championship since 1989-90 when they played in the Big West. They won the MW tournament title for the first time, their first tourney crown since winning the Big West in 1994.

La Rocque welcomed eight new players this season. Durazo-Frescas and guard Kiara Jackson contributed as freshmen, and La Rocque used the transfer portal to boost the program to another level.

Las Vegas native Essence Booker transferred from Ball State, Nneka Obiazor came from Youngstown State and was named the Mountain West’s Sixth Woman of the Year, and Rooks provided veteran leadership from a Power Five program.

All that talent surrounded senior wing Justice Ethridge and sophomore center Desi-Rae Young, the conference’s Freshman of the Year in 2020-21, giving La Rocque size, shooting, defense and the ability to play a modern system.

“There’s times in your life when you get a synergy of the right people around you, that you know something special is working and coming together,” she said. “I felt that all year with this group.”

Her trust paid off. UNLV swept through Mountain West play, winning 12 consecutive games on its way to the title. Young blossomed and was named the conference’s Player of the Year. Booker was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after starring in the championship game against Colorado State.

“With the season we had, it’s a standard now,” Booker said.

That means new goals for the team. The Lady Rebels want to retain the regular-season and tournament titles next season and win a game in the NCAA Tournament

“We want to prove it’s not a fluke that we got here,” Booker said.

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

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