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UNLV women need to start fast to compete with Arizona

TUCSON, Arizona — Arizona senior Sam Thomas probably knows UNLV better than anyone outside the Lady Rebels program.

“They’re coming in hungry,” Sam, the sister of UNLV sophomore Jade Thomas, said. “They know they have nothing to lose.”

Saturday, No. 13-seeded UNLV and No. 4 Arizona will play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the McKale Center in Tucson, Arizona, starting at 7 p.m. On paper, the game seems like a straightforward Wildcat win.

Arizona enters the tournament as the 2021 NCAA tournament finalists, part of a remarkable rise under coach Adia Barnes. UNLV hasn’t made a tournament in two decades. However, UA’s coach has made it clear the Wildcats won’t overlook the Lady Rebels.

“In my opinion, they’re better than a 13 seed,” Barnes said.

UNLV’s explosive offense is a major reason Barnes won’t look past them. Led by junior Essence Booker, the Lady Rebels have averaged 75.6 points per game. Without 2021 NCAA Tournament star Aari McDonald, who graduated, Arizona’s offense has lagged. The Wildcats were upset by Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals, scoring just 43 points in the loss.

Additionally, the Lady Rebels’ rebounding will help them keep pace. Led by sophomore forward Desi-Rae Young, the Lady Rebels have crushed opponents on the glass. Arizona had the second-worst rebounding margin in the Pac-12 this season.

However, the Lady Rebels will need to avoid a slow start, something which has plagued them all season. UNLV trailed by nine points early in the Mountain West Tournament championship game against Colorado State, but roared back. However, falling behind against Arizona will be a much bigger challenge.

“We do want to come out of the gates fast,” Young said. “We want to score in transition. We want to score whenever we have the ball, but it just depends on the momentum of the game.”

Preparing for the home crowd

Ahead of the Mountain West Tournament, La Rocque and her players were adamant playing at home didn’t bring any advantages.

Arizona’s thought process has been the exact opposite. They plan to take full advantage of playing on their home court.

“We had to go through security just to get into McKale so it’s kind of odd,” Arizona senior Shaina Pellington said. “But we’re super excited to prepare for the tournament, and we’re really happy we get to be here and play in front of our fans. It should be a lot of fun.”

UNLV knows there’s going to be a heavy dose of blue in the McKale Center stands. In preparation for a large, likely hostile crowd, La Rocque and the Lady Rebels have been preparing by implementing some interesting training techniques.

“We’ve been playing with loud, big speakers of people cheering and booing,” Young said.

Attempt to mimic the environment ahead of Saturday’s game, the speakers allowed UNLV to practice communicating in high-pressure situations. Booker believes the team will still be able to function at a high level.

“As far as the game goes, I don’t think we’re going to do anything differently,” she said. “I think we prepared the same way we do for any game.”

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

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