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Lady Rebels prepared to defend Mountain West crown

The UNLV women’s basketball team already set its expectation last season.

The Lady Rebels won the Mountain West regular-season championship and the conference tournament. They gave Arizona everything it could handle in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. UNLV established itself as a program on the rise.

Now comes the difficult part — maintaining that standard of excellence.

“We’re not a finished product yet,” UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque said. “I think that’s the biggest reminder for all of them. We don’t win a championship in November. We have a lot of work to do.

“We like where we’re at, but we’re not satisfied.”

The Lady Rebels open their season at 5:15 p.m. Monday against Pepperdine to Cox Pavilion.

UNLV is in a great position to continue its upward trajectory. Six of its top seven scorers from last season return, including four of the starting five.

Reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Desi-Rae Young and senior guard Essence Booker, the Lady Rebels’ leading scorer last year, said they are simply excited for the season to start.

“We just want to win, and take it one day at a time,” Young said.

Along with Young and Booker, the Lady Rebels also return starting wings Justice Ethridge and Alyssa Durazo-Frescas, whom associate head coach Roman Owen called one of the team’s most improved players.

Durazo-Frescas scored 21 points and went 5-for-8 from 3-point range during UNLV’s 114-53 win in an exhibition game Wednesday against Chico State.

Also, Mountain West Sixth Player of the Year Nneka Obiazor looks set to move into the starting lineup to replace forward Khayla Rooks, the Lady Rebels’ lone major departure from last season.

Booker and Young were quick to compliment the growth of some of the team’s reserve players, too. Booker cited the big strides made by sophomore guard Kiara Jackson, and Young said she has been most impressed by freshman Jasmyn Lott, whose length and athleticism might help her crack the rotation this year.

While several players have made steps on the court, Owen credited Booker and Young for leaning into the leadership role vacated by Rooks. The players said it’s simply a reflection of the culture the coaches have created in the program.

“The team has bought in,” Booker said. “That’s our main strength right now.”

One major change UNLV will deal with is La Rocque’s pregnancy. The coach is expected to give birth early this season, and Owen will temporarily take over when she’s away from the team.

La Rocque has said she expects to return during the season.

In the meantime, Owen said the Lady Rebels understand what needs to be done to maintain their status atop the Mountain West.

“We’re our biggest enemy,” Owen said. “The biggest challenge is fighting ourselves every day, not getting complacent, trying to reach a new level of greatness for ourselves. If we continue to battle ourselves and get a little better each day, we’ll be where we need to be come March.”

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

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