Friday, March 19, 2004 | 9:21 a.m.
Some basketball games are a work of art, like the Mona Lisa.
Others are a work of art, like Dogs Playing Poker. The black light, velvet version.
You could put Thursday's WNIT opener between Arizona State and UNLV at Cox Pavilion in the latter category, right next to the ceramic Elvis lawn ornaments being sold out of the back of the van.
But at least the Lady Rebels won it, as Sherry McCracklin sank three free throws in the final 20 seconds to give UNLV a 50-47 victory against the visitors from the Pacific-10 in front of 711 spectators.
It was the Lady Rebels' first victory against a Pac-10 team in 14 years and their first postseason win in three, since they beat Loyola-Marymount in the first round of the 2001 WNIT.
UNLV will meet Rice, a 59-52 winner against Arkansas State Thursday night, in the tournament's second round at 4 p.m. Sunday at Cox.
The Lady Rebels lived to play another day, despite committing a season-high 34 turnovers. Arizona State's relentless man-to-man defense mirrored UNLV's and turned the game into a grinding scrum.
"That was ugly," said coach Regina Miller after the Lady Rebels improved to 23-7, equaling their win total of two years ago, when they last went to the NCAA tournament. "If you came here wanting to see a pretty game ... this wasn't even close.
"Most teams play a zone against us or a sagging man. This team played aggressive team defense. Every time we dribbled the ball, they were all over us."
UNLV's 34 turnovers weren't the only smudge on the stat sheet. To wit:
"I don't think it was so much that they were a physical team," said forward RanDee Henry, who led the Lady Rebels with a modest 12 points. "It's just that they were a team almost exactly like us. It was almost like practice."
Actually, said Miller, it was more like an Oklahoma State men's practice.
"I was watching the men's (NCAA tournament) games where they showed Oklahoma State (practicing) in helmets and pads," she said. "This game was kind of like that a little bit.
"On the positive side, this was a good win for us. I thought we played hard and our defensive pressure was good. It's like I told them, they put pressure on you, you give it back to them."
That they did, as the Lady Rebels jostled and cajoled Arizona State into 17 turnovers. More importantly, they got most of the rebounds. McCracklin pulled down 14 by herself as the Lady Rebels enjoyed a decisive 41-20 edge on the boards against the Pac-10's best defensive team.
Her last one was the biggest. After her two free tosses had given UNLV the lead, McCracklin snared Sheena Moore's missed free throw and was fouled with 5.9 seconds to play. She made 1 of 2 from the line that held up for the final margin of victory, when YoVanna Rosenthal's desperation heave from half court slammed off the glass.
While the game lacked asthetics, it featured plenty of desire. There were 10 ties and nine lead changes as both teams played with passion, which sometimes is hard to do in the lesser of the two postseason tournaments.
"The biggest thing is we've got everybody coming back except for two of us (point guard InFini Robinson and reserve forward Padra Strong)," Henry said. "We just don't want to be in the WNIT, we want to win it."
McCracklin, who appeared on the verge of physical exhaustion late in the game, had 11 points to go with her 14 rebounds while Moore added 10 points for the Lady Rebels. Loney finished with 13 for the Sun Devils, who closed the book on a 17-12 season.