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Lady Rebels’ comeback falls short in Lindy La Rocque’s debut

UNLV showed in its season opener against Northern Arizona it’s still very much a work in progress under first-year basketball coach Lindy La Rocque.

But the Lady Rebels don’t lack fight.

UNLV trailed by 17 points with 7:44 remaining Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center and played the final 3:06 without guard Bailey Thomas, its lone senior, after she fouled out. The team still cut its deficit to two in the final seconds before losing 79-75 in La Rocque’s debut.

“I’m proud of the fight and determination we showed there at the end to give ourselves a chance,” La Rocque said. “We’re not done. And we’re going to continue to improve and grow from this game.”

The lead-in to the Lady Rebels’ season was as exciting as it could be without fans because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was still a pregame hype video on the scoreboard, flames and fireworks shooting out of the baskets and a recording of the school band and student section to bring energy to an empty arena in which 64 cardboard cutouts were placed in seats.

But UNLV’s first-half performance wasn’t nearly as exciting. La Rocque likened the half to a scrimmage she would have rather had behind closed doors.

The Lady Rebels, picked to finish ninth in the 11-team Mountain West, struggled with defensive assignments, turned the ball over too much and trailed 49-32 at halftime. The team, which has one returning starter and two upperclassmen, looked as if it was still learning to play together.

Things improved slightly in the third quarter, but the game appeared out of reach when the Lumberjacks took a 67-50 lead early in the fourth.

Then, UNLV locked in. The Lady Rebels scored 25 points in the final 6:03 and had a chance late. Two free throws from freshman forward Desi-Rae Young made the score 75-72 with 36 seconds remaining. A foul and two free throws on the ensuing possession sealed the win for Northern Arizona, picked to finished third in the Big Sky Conference.

Sophomore forward Delaynie Byrne led the Lady Rebels with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and sophomore center Keyana Wilfred added 11 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes.

“I don’t think it was really until the second half when it felt like it really came together,” Byrne said. “I was proud of my teammates for just lifting each other up, talking to each other throughout the whole way.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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