The returning players on UNLV’s women’s basketball team understand second-year coach Lindy La Rocque and her standards. They understand the conference championship-caliber expectations that follow a second-place finish.
“All of the new players, we recruited them based off of that,” she said. “Now it’s just blending everyone and all of those expectations together.”
While it’s nice to be recognized as one of the Mountain West’s best team, La Rocque says “really it’s about our internal expectations and standard.
“We’re not going to be a hidden gem anymore. We’re going to have more of a target on our back.”
That’s the reality the Lady Rebels face after posting a 15-9 record and 13-5 conference record en route to last season’s second-place finish. The league’s media and coaches picked UNLV to finish third this year in its annual preseason poll.
La Rocque has her sights set on a conference title. UNLV opens its season Tuesday at Oral Roberts.
“I always want to win. That’s my expectation as the coach and the leader,” she said. “The success we had (last year), it wasn’t a fluke. It was the process, the work we’ve put in that we’ve continued to incorporate and build upon. Was I suprised at last year? … No. Was I pleased and excited about it? Absolutely. And we’re going to build upon that for sure.”
Like their male counterparts, the Lady Rebels have retooled their roster around a core of returners that includes reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Year and sophomore post Desi-Rae Young, sophomore guard Jade Thomas and junior post Keyana Wilfred. Senior all-conference guard Nia Johnson was slated to join that group but opted this year to step away from the team, per La Rocque.
The rest of the roster is comprised of nine newcomers: five freshmen, three transfers and one returner who sat out the 2020-21 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With so many young players and new players, we’ve had growth from Day One,” La Rocque said. “It seems to be a great upward trend. We’re still learning new things about each other and our team. The biggest thing is just playing together.”
Young is primed for an even better 2021-22 campaign after averaging 12.7 points and 6.9 rebounds a year ago. Thomas is a reliable two-way wing who played 35.7 minutes per game last season, and Wilfred supplies size and depth.
The freshmen class is a relative unknown, but transfer guard Essence Booker and transfer forward Nneka Obiazor were double-figure scorers at their previous schools.
Transfer post Khayla Rooks comes from Washington, a Power Five program, and senior guard Justice Ethridge was a fixture in UNLV’s rotation during the 2019-20 season.
“We’re a lot younger … but when we all put our heads together, we’re one person,” Young said. “Nobody’s really going to stop us once we’re all connected.
“I think we’re capable of winning our tournament. … I have a lot of confidence in us.”
Three players to watch
Essence Booker: The junior guard and former Spring Valley star was once an all-conference honorable mention at UNR. She averaged 10.9 points per game last year at Ball State and can score and faciliate from the perimeter.
Nneka Obiazor: The sophomore forward was one of the most productive freshmen in the country last year, averaging 15.3 points and 8.1 rebounds at Youngstown State. She earned Horizon League Freshman of the Year honors and has an inside-out skill-set — shooting 42.5 percent from deep a year ago.
Justice Ethridge: The former Centennial standout is back after sitting out her junior season. She was a steady piece of the rotation during her first two college seasons and averaged 6.5 points a game in 2019-20.