The UNLV Lady Rebels have made the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament for the second year in a row and are the No. 11 seed taking on the No. 6 seed, Michigan Wolverines, at Pete Maravich Assembly Center at noon PST on March 17.
The team that wins the game will go to the round of 32 and play the winner of the matchup between No. 3 seed LSU and No. 14 seed Hawaii.
The Tale of the Tape
The Lady Rebels enter the tournament this year improved with a No. 11 seed compared to last year’s No. 13 seed. UNLV earned a No.11 seed by improving its overall record to 30-2 compared to a 26-7 record in the previous season.
The Lady Rebels after a season of being first in the Mountain West Conference with a 15-3 record and winning the Mountain West Championship improved in the 2022-2023 campaign sweeping the conference going 18-0 in the regular season and winning the Mountain West Championship.
As the Lady Rebels go into the 2023 NCAA National Basketball Championship Tournament looking to win its first tournament game since 1991 where the Lady Rebels beat Texas Tech 70-65.
Michigan has significantly more experience playing in the Big Dance entering the Tournament in 2022 as the No. 3 seed and advancing to Elite Eight for the first time in program history.
However, the Wolverines have had some adjusting to do this season according to women’s basketball beat writer for the Michigan Daily, Liza Cushnir, after a 2022 season where the Michigan Wolverines made the Elite Eight because star Naz Hillmon, who averaged 23.9 points a game entered the WNBA draft in the offseason.
“[Hillmon] was an all American you know, took this team to historic heights. She got the team to the first ever sweet 16 And the first ever Elite Eight,” Cushnir said. “The year later, she’s been a deniable leader in the program.”
Michigan had a record of 22-9 in the regular season. The difference between UNLV and Michigan is the strength of the schedule. The Wolverines play in the Big 10 where seven teams made it to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Tournament compared to the Mountain West where UNLV was the lone team for the past two seasons.
Notable wins for the Wolverines in the regular season outside the Big 10 were against North Carolina, Miami, and Baylor. The Tar Heels were ranked No. 6 in the country when the teams faced off and Baylor was ranked No. 21.
On the contrary, the Wolverines have a record of 0-7 against ranked opponents since the calendar flipped to 2023 and Big 10 conference play started.
One of the reasons that the Wolverines did not play at its best on the 2023 side of the schedule according to Cushnir was injuries.
“Michigan hasn’t been up to full health saved from the big 10 tournaments since the end of January,” Cushnir said. “Healthy Michigan with one final chance to prove itself.”
The Star Players to Look out for
The captain of the Lady Rebels and “The Anchor” of the team, according to Head Coach Lindy La Rocque, is Desi-Rae Young. Young this season was recognized as first-team all-Mountain West Conference and won the Mountain West Tournament MVP. Young averaged above a double-double with 18.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Young in her career also has accolades that include Mountain West Freshman of the Year and in 2022 she was voted Mountain West Player of the Year.
The field general for the Lady Rebels is its point guard Essence Booker. Booker along with Young was named on the All-Mountain West Conference Team for the 2023 season and she scored the second most points by a guard in Mountain West Conference games. Booker is a guard that can score an average of 13.2 points per game. She also spreads the ball around averaging four assists per game. Expect Booker’s stats to boost during the NCAA National Championship Tournament because according to La Rocque, “she’s a tournament player.”
The offense wins games but the defense wins championships. Justice Ethridge is a defender that can change the trajectory of a game with her ability to steal and block the ball. In the 2023 season, Ethridge recorded 21 steals and 12 blocks and was voted for the second time to the Mountain West All-Defensive Team.
According to Cushnir, The Wolverines are the only team that has three players that average 16 points a game. The three players that average over 16 points a game are Leigha Brown, Laila Phelia and Emily Kiser.
Brown is a versatile guard that averages the most points for the Wolverines with 18 points a game, leads the Wolverines in the assists column and has the second-most rebounds on the team.
“Leigha is really a floor general and she’ll get the ball where she needs to and she can also create a temporary shell,” Cushnir said.
Phelia is a consistent scorer for the Wolverines averaging 16.9 points per game and has the highest 3-point percentage by anyone on the team who has shot 20 more 3-pointers in the season with 41.6%. Phelia on the other side of the court has recorded 36 steals and 14 blocks on defense.
“Laila Phelia is a two-way player,” Cushnir said. “She’ll defend the opposing team’s best guard and also create her shot.”
Phelia missed some games during conference play of the regular season, but was healthy during the Big 10 conference tournament and will play in the NCAA National Basketball Championship Tournament.
Emily Kiser leads the team with rebounds averaging 7.1 rebounds and 16.2 points a game. “Emily plays a smart patient game on the inside,” Cushnir said.
Do not let Cushnir fool you, Kiser also can knock down shots from beyond the arc averaging 34.2% this season from downtown.
An X-Factor for the Lady Rebels that can give them an extra boost of points in the tournament is Alyssa Durazo-Frescas. Durazo-Frescas is the 3-point sniper for the Lady Rebels. She is shooting roughly 37% from beyond the arc and in a couple of games in the season Durazo-Frescas was automatic, knocking down 3-pointers. Her season high of 3-pointers made in a game was six against New Mexico on Jan. 14. If Durazo-Frescas can catch heat from beyond the arc it can ease the pressure Young will face at the paint.
Cushnir pointed out that her two X-Factors to look out for in Michigan are Jordan Hobbs and Chyra Evans.
“[Hobbs] started both games in the Big 10 Tournament. So either off the bench or in the starting five, I think she’s going to be critical,” Cushnir said. “She’s a really good scorer and her ability to make some shots early will be huge.”
“Chyra Evans did not have a ton of time in the Big 10 Tournament but she had a huge game in Michigan’s biggest win of the season, which was an upset over North Carolina back in December,” Cushnir said. “She’s a really smart, talented post-player. So especially against some players like Desi-Rae Young or Angel Reese, if Michigan advances and plays LSU, Chyra Evans is going to be huge as well.”
Keys to the Game
3-pointers are key for both teams in this game. The ability to shoot the ball from beyond the arc will shift how the opposing team will play defense.
“If Maddie Nolan can make some 3-pointers early that will be huge for Michigan,” Cushnir said.
Nolan has made the most 3-pointers on the Wolverines totaling 61 splashes from beyond the arc in the 2022-2023 season.
If UNLV can not shoot well from beyond the arc, the Wolverines can focus on defending Young in the paint. However, if the Lady Rebels can be two-dimensional and score from different places on the court the Michigan defense will be more spread out.
Offensive rebounds are a strong suit that the Lady Rebels can use to expose the Wolverines at the paint. Alyssa Brown and Young have more offensive rebounds than any player of the Wolverines. For the Lady Rebels to pull off an upset at Baton Rouge, it must pick up rebounds to get itself the most opportunities with the basketball possible. Even though the Wolverines have fewer offensive rebounds than the Lady Rebels, the Wolverines still grabbed more offensive rebounds than its opponents this season 326-293, so if the Wolverines can out rebound keep the rebound margin positive against the Lady Rebels, it will be in good shape.
Foul trouble is a sneaky way that the Wolverines can break up the Lady Rebels’ game plan. The Wolverines are a smart, scrappy team that is physical and will drive to the rim against the Lady Rebels on offense, and on the defensive side, the Wolverines will lay its body out and take charges.
“It’s kind of a combination of playing smarter, discipline, basketball and just having the role players step up when they need to,” Cushnir said.
This can put the UNLV defenders, including Young, at risk of being in foul trouble. The Lady Rebels will need to play disciplined on offense and defense to keep their best players on the court for all 40 minutes.
Where to Watch the Game
There will be a live watch party for the game at PRKY Tavern located at 4930 W Flamingo Rd Las Vegas, NV. Doors will open at 11 a.m.
To watch the broadcast on television the game will be on ESPNU.