Updated March 8, 2021 - 9:19 pm
It was a dream season for Lindy La Rocque as she returned to her native Las Vegas and far exceeded expectations in her first year as coach at UNLV.
But the Lady Rebels’ season abruptly ended in nightmarish fashion in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament at the Thomas &Mack Center on Monday night.
Seventh-seeded Wyoming made 15 3-pointers and cruised to a 72-56 victory over No. 2 UNLV.
It was the fourth straight year the Lady Rebels lost their opener in the Mountain West tournament, an event the program has never won. That includes the 2018 tournament when UNLV lost its first game despite finishing tied atop the regular-season standings.
It was all supposed to change this season after UNLV thrived in the regular season, going unbeaten on the road and closing out the year with five straight wins to finish second in the conference after being picked ninth in the preseason poll.
“This one hurts really bad,” La Rocque said. “We’ve got some upset young ladies in the locker room, which is a good thing because we’re really proud of what we’ve done and how far we’ve come. But they’re upset because they expect to win, and that’s the culture and standard we’re setting the expectation we have for this program moving forward.
“While we’re on our way, we’re not quite there yet. But we’re pretty dang close.”
UNLV’s difficulty finding a rhythm on offense and inability to guard the perimeter proved to be its downfall.
Wyoming went 15 of 32 from 3-point range and had six players make a shot from beyond the arc after going just 5-for-20 in the opening-round win over Utah State.
Several of the long-range shots came late in the shot clock after making the Lady Rebels defend for a full 30 seconds.
“It’s mentally and physically so draining,” said Bailey Thomas, UNLV’s lone senior and the two-time league defensive player of the year. “You play so hard for 30 seconds, and to still give up a 3 just takes the life out of you. Then you have to go play offense and try to match that, and we just couldn’t do that tonight.
“They did a really good job, and I credit them for making so many and just taking the life out of us.”
The frustration showed on the offensive end, outside of a stellar game from league freshman of the year Desi-Rae Young.
The former Desert Oasis star made 7 of 10 shots and led UNLV with 21 points, but the rest of the team combined to shoot 14-for-45.
The Lady Rebels got within seven points on two occasions in the third quarter, but Wyoming had an answer each time. Two 3-pointers in the final minute of the period gave the Cowgirls an 18-point edge headed to the final 10 minutes.
An NCAA bid is almost certainly out of the question for UNLV, and the NIT may be a long shot as well after the loss dropped them outside the top 100 in the RPI.
“It’s been a phenomenal year,” said La Rocque, the Mountain West Coach of the Year. “When we’re able to come down from some of this emotion and look back and reflect, we did some pretty awesome things with some awesome people.
“Nobody could have written this script. It’s a great way to establish what we’re going to build off of and continue to keep going.”