Kathy Olivier, one of UNLV’s all-time great players, knows what it’s like when the women’s basketball program is at the top.
And as the coach in her 10th season with the Lady Rebels, she knows it’s been a long time.
The wait finally ended Friday night when the Lady Rebels captured a share of the Mountain West championship with a 68-58 victory over Utah State at Cox Pavilion.
This was UNLV’s first Mountain West title and the first conference championship of any kind since winning the Big West tournament in 1994. The Lady Rebels celebrated by cutting down one of the nets.
Olivier, an All-American on the 1980 UNLV team that made the national regionals, has worked a long time to get to this point. She became emotional talking about the significance of the victory.
“I can’t say enough positive things about this UNLV Lady Rebel team and about the city of Las Vegas that’s meant so much to me,” Olivier said. “To be a player here and now come back and coach and have all these people (announced crowd of 1,001), I’m a little overwhelmed. We worked so hard and deserved this, so hopefully we can keep it going for everyone.”
UNLV (19-10, 14-4 MW) shares the title with Boise State (20-9, 14-4), which beat Wyoming 67-63 on Friday. The three teams entered the game tied for first. Boise State gets the top seed in the conference tournament for having a better record against third-place Wyoming.
The Lady Rebels will play at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center against Monday’s winner between No. 7 UNR (14-15, 7-11) and No. 10 San Diego State (11-18, 5-13). They meet at 4:30 p.m.
Against Utah State (7-22, 5-13), the Lady Rebels struggled early, making 25.8 percent of their shots in the first half, including 16.7 percent on 3-pointers. The Aggies took advantage and led 27-25 at halftime.
But even that seemed like a victory for UNLV, to shoot so poorly and only be a basket down. And, sure enough, the Lady Rebels took charge when the second half began, going on an 18-2 run to take a 43-29 lead.
“We were just hoping that was going to be our bad quarter (second) and we were going to come out defensively and get the offense moving,” UNLV guard Brooke Johnson said. “That’s what we did.”
Johnson was a major part of that effort. She made 7 of 10 shots, including 5 of 8 3-pointers, to lead UNLV with 22 points. Katie Powell added 13 points and eight rebounds, and Nikki Wheatley scored 12.
Hailey Bassett and Olivia West each scored 11 for Utah State.
The Lady Rebels played a demanding nonconference schedule, and they said that helped prepare them for games like Friday’s.
“Learning how to persevere no matter what and to play against big girls like that that were physical really helped,” Wheatley said.