UNLV’s 13-point lead in the second half nearly evaporated. The Lady Rebels had a five-minute scoring drought that brought Colorado State back.
As Colorado State held UNLV scoreless through the end of the third quarter and answered nearly every UNLV basket in the fourth quarter, head coach Lindy La Rocque kept her composure because she trusted her team to make enough plays to win them the game.
Her insticints paid off as top-seeded UNLV defeated Colorado State 75-65 in the Mountain West women’s basketball championship game Wednesday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, sending the Lady Rebels to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
“I have to stay calm so they can stay calm…,” La Rocque said as Colorado State made its run. “It was about keeping it really positive, keeping it really calm and just reassuring them like ‘You’re fine, we’re good, it’s all good. You just took their best shot. Now go back at them.’”
Tournament MVP Essence Booker knocked down a corner 3-pointer on an in-bounds pass, as the shot clock expired, with 42 seconds remaining that sealed the win for UNLV.
The shot almost didn’t happen. Booker had the ball taken away from her, and dove to the floor and picked up the loose ball. She managed to call timeout and UNLV had two seconds on the shot clock.
In the huddle, assistant coach Roman Owen drew up the play for Booker. Before they set for the play, Booker and her teammates knew that she was going to make that shot.
“I kept telling myself, I’m going to make it, and they ended up doing something defensively that left me wide open and I knocked it down,” Booker, who finished with a team high 25 points, said.
The Lady Rebels had to weather a hot start from Colorado State as the Rams jumped out to an early 12-5 lead in the first quarter. A 7-0 run for UNLV tied the game and 10 first quarter points from Booker gave the Lady Rebels a 24-19 lead after the first 10 minutes.
UNLV’s defense made it difficult for Colorado State to generate any offense as the Rams shot just 3-of-16 from the floor in the second quarter. But the Lady Rebels only scored four points the final six minutes before halftime and only held a 38-31 advantage at the break.
It appeared UNLV would pull away in the third quarter, as a 12-2 run gave UNLV a 50-37 advantage midway through the third quarter. But three UNLV turnovers and a lengthy scoring drought brought the Rams within a single possession multiple times through the fourth quarter.
Just as La Rocque trusted her team the weather the Colorado State run late, her players showed that same trust in each other to hold on for the victory.
“The outcome could have been totally different if we didn’t have great leadership and great players…It’s just their belief and love and trust for each other,” La Rocque said.
Entering the tournament, UNLV was in a position to where they had to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA Tournament. Since the start of the tournament, La Rocque and her players had the goal of winning three games in three days to make the tournament. And in its biggest game of the season, UNLV answered the call to achieve that goal.
“I’m just extremely proud,” La Rocque. “I don’t know if it’s totally set in yet. I’m really, really proud of all of the young women in our locker room,” La Rocque said. “They did whatever we needed to do and we talked about that at the beginning of the week, of whatever it takes, and they did it.”
The Lady Rebels will find out where they are going for the NCAA Tournament Sunday at 5 p.m. during the Women’s Basketball Tournament Selection Show on ESPN.