Essence Booker went to the bench after committing a pair of third quarter turnovers. Before the fourth quarter, head coach Lindy La Rocque told her point guard to win the game for her.
“And she did that,” La Rocque said.
Booker scored seven quick points for the Lady Rebels in the fourth quarter and gave them a 10-point lead as they went on to defeat Air Force 61-50 in the semifinals of the Mountain West tournament Tuesday night.
All season long, La Rocque had praised her depth as a key to her team’s success. But her two all-conference players, Booker and Desi-Rae Young, stepped up to lead the top-seeded Lady Rebels to the championship game.
“With two all conference players sitting next to me, they got the job,” La Rocque said. “Desi showed why she’s a player of the year in the league. And Essence does what she does and puts the game away for us.”
After struggling in UNLV’s quarterfinal win against Utah State, Young was able to find her groove in the paint in the first half, scoring eight of her 16 points and helped the Lady Rebels to an advantage with rebounding and points in the paint.
The Lady Rebels went into halftime with a 27-23 lead, but they ended the half on a 4:51 scoring drought.
Young pulled UNLV out of its scoring drought that almost reached six minutes with a jump shot. Young’s versatility to score and contribute in a variety of ways has impressed La Rocque, and it proved to be key for UNLV.
“She’s a handful,” La Rocque said. “And she’s just been really really consistent and has done it a number of different ways.”
In the fourth quarter, Booker scored nine of her team-high 17 points as UNLV led by as much as 14 points in the fourth quarter. La Rocque has called upon Booker all year long to provide a spark when UNLV has needed it.
“(La Rocque) trusts me to do that,” Booker said. “I feel like I’ve been consistent throughout the season and I feel like most importantly, my teammates trust me and that matters.”
Defensively, UNLV held Air Force to 28.6% shooting from the field and 17.6% from 3-point range. In three quarters, the Falcons failed to shoot better than 30%.
With UNLV making its first appearance in the Mountain West championship game since 2002, La Rocque has emphasized that the goal is to win three games in three days, and that the job is not done. That mentality has resonated with her players as that goal becomes closer to a reality.
“I’m trying to make a comeback from last year,” Young said. “We lost in the beginning and I just want to make it all the way through, even make it to the dance. That’s something that I’ve been hoping for.”
UNLV will play for the Mountain West championship and NCAA Tournament berth tomorrow at 7 p.m., playing the winner of New Mexico and Colorado State.