After engineering one of the most impressive turnarounds in women’s college basketball this season, UNLV was quickly eliminated from the Mountain West Conference tournament in Las Vegas.
The Lady Rebels, upset in the quarterfinals by New Mexico, will get a chance to redeem themselves Thursday when they play Saint Mary’s (Calif.) on the road in the first round of the women’s National Invitation Tournament.
The postseason appearance is the first since 2006 for UNLV, which is 22-9 after going 11-20 last season.
“Losing in the first round hurt a lot,” fourth-year coach Kathy Olivier said. “For our seniors, this is a chance to finish on a positive. They had a bad taste in their mouth.”
By virtue of top seed San Diego State winning the MWC tournament Saturday, second-seeded UNLV received an automatic berth to the WNIT as the league’s highest regular-season finisher not selected for the NCAA Tournament. But the Lady Rebels didn’t learn who or where they would be playing until the 64-team WNIT field was unveiled online Monday night.
UNLV put in a bid to the WNIT to host a first-round game, but was denied. The game will take place at the Gaels’ (21-10) McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, Calif.
“For whatever it’s worth, they chose Saint Mary’s,” Olivier said. “We’ll play wherever they want to send us. It’s not a long flight and we’ve played pretty good on the road. The team’s just excited to keep playing.”
Especially senior Jamie Smith, the school’s career rebounding leader. She had nine rebounds in the 61-58 loss to the Lobos, but was held scoreless in her final game in Las Vegas.
“That game was just horrible,” she said. “It was a bad loss for us. We weren’t ourselves in that game. I’m just glad we have the opportunity to redeem ourselves. We can definitely made a good run in this tournament.”
It won’t be easy. Saint Mary’s, which finished fourth in the West Coast Conference, narrowly lost to No. 20 Gonzaga, 83-78, in the WCC tournament semifinals at Orleans Arena. The Gaels upset the Zags 66-63 on the road in the regular season.
Three players average more than 10 points for Saint Mary’s, which hosted first-round WNIT games in each of the last two seasons, losing to UNR last year and to Utah two years ago.
“We’re in the mix with a lot of good teams,” Olivier said. “The first one’s going to be tough. Saint Mary’s is a good program. They won over 20 games and (Paul Thomas) is a good coach. He’ll have them ready.”
This is the ninth WNIT appearance for the Lady Rebels, who advanced to the postseason a school-record six straight years from 2001 to 2006. They were in the NCAA Tournament in 2002 and the WNIT the other years, making a run to the final in 2004, the last time the school reached 20 wins before this season.
“There’s the possibility of getting on a roll, but we’ve got to get that first one before we can do anything,” Olivier said.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354.BAYLOR (34-0) TOP OVERALL SEED IN WOMEN’S NCAA TOURNEY
Unbeaten Baylor received the top seed Monday for the women’s NCAA Tournament, which starts Saturday and ends April 3 with the championship game at Denver.
Stanford (31-1, Fresno region), Connecticut (29-4, Kingston regional) and Notre Dame (30-3, Raleigh region)) joined the Lady Bears (34-0, Des Moines region) as No. 1 seeds for the 64-team tournament.
Baylor, led by All-America center Brittney Griner, is looking to become the seventh school to run through a season unbeaten and the first to win 40 games. The Lady Bears open the tourney against UC Santa Barbara (17-15) on Sunday in Bowling Green, Ohio.
To get to their second Final Four in three seasons, the Lady Bears might have to get through Tennessee, which is appearing in its 31st straight NCAA Tournament. The teams clashed in November, and Tennessee had an eight-point lead early in the second half before Griner took over en route to a nine-point victory.
Griner, a 6-foot-8-inch junior, averages 23.3 points and 9.4 rebounds. She has scored more than 40 points twice in the past 10 games.
Defending national champion Texas A&M (22-10), the No. 3 seed in the Raleigh region, will open Saturday against Albany (N.Y.) (23-9) at College Station, Texas.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS