Lady Rebels stun league leaders

Trailing by nine points in the second half, UNLV looked beaten against the Mountain West Conference’s best team.

It was a familiar position for the Lady Rebels, who had lost to Utah 11 straight times since 2004.

But this time was different. UNLV didn’t let the Utes get too far ahead, then blazed right past them with a 20-2 run that overwhelmed Utah in a 68-55 victory Wednesday.

“Tonight was the first night we played a good 35, 36 minutes,” UNLV coach Kathy Olivier said. “We did the things we emphasize every day.”

The Lady Rebels (11-16, 4-10 MWC) are playing their best ball of the season. They nearly won at Brigham Young on Saturday, losing on a last-second put-back, and mustered a strong finish to beat the Utes (18-8, 11-2) at Cox Pavilion.

“We knew we could beat them, and that was the biggest difference,” said UNLV guard Brittany Halberg, who scored 15 points to lead Lady Rebels scorers in double figures.

Freshman guard-forward Jamie Smith (10 points, 14 rebounds) registered her ninth double-double.

“I think we relied on each other instead of one or two people because we could pass it to anybody,” Smith said. “It got fun tonight. When you start having fun, that’s when the game comes to you and it gets easier.”

UNLV also set a school record by making 23 of 24 free throws for a 95.8 percentage. That beat the record of 95.5 (21-for-22) against Pacific in 1991.

The Lady Rebels also got it done defensively. Olivier kept the Utes guessing by mixing zone defenses with an occasional man-to-man. The only Utah player who didn’t seem confused was guard Morgan Warburton, who scored 21 points. Her performance wasn’t enough to offset Utah’s 32.7 shooting percentage.

Cold shooting or not, it still looked like the Utes’ night when they led 38-29 with 14:48 remaining.

But the Lady Rebels made it clear Utah was in for a fight when, with UNLV trailing 39-36, Smith blocked Warburton’s shot in the left corner, grabbed the rebound and was fouled.

“We chipped away,” Olivier said. “We didn’t try to make it up in one possession. We didn’t panic. We had a poise that we could do this.”

Utah had a 46-38 lead when the Lady Rebels’ decisive streak began. They pulled even at 48 with 5:25 remaining when center Shamela Hampton passed outside to Smith, who made a 3-pointer.

Dominique Harris’ tiebreaking jumper with 4:40 left put the Lady Rebels ahead for good, and she quickly added a basket from the lane. Halberg followed with back-to-back 3-pointers to push UNLV’s lead to 58-48.

“With Utah, (extending the lead) is extremely important,” Harris said. “They can come back in a minute.”

It was a remarkable charge for UNLV, which broke a four-game losing streak. The Lady Rebels play at Air Force on Wednesday and host San Diego State on March 7 before the conference tournament.

“This is the time you want to peak,” Halberg said. “We’re showing everyone we’re not going away just yet.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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