Wednesday, March 7, 2012 | 9:57 p.m.
- The Sun's Mountain West Conference tournament section
- As UNLV enters postseason play against Wyoming, defense becomes even more important
- Mountain West tournament title won’t prove anything, but could improve UNLV’s seeding
- Boxing legend Mike Tyson gives an emotional speech at UNLV basketball practice
- Mike Moser makes first team, four Rebels honored on All-Mountain West teams
- UNLV falls three spots to No. 20 in both polls
- The Mountain West tournament features a first-round rematch for UNLV and Wyoming
- 2011-12 UNLV Men's Basketball Schedule
- All UNLV Men's Basketball Coverage
This loss will definitely sting for the UNLV women’s basketball team.
However, the quarterfinal defeat on Wednesday in the Mountain West Conference tournament won’t take away from what has been a breakthrough season.
The No. 2-seeded Lady Rebels squandered a nine-point second-half lead Wednesday with less than 10 minutes remaining against New Mexico at the Thomas & Mack Center, falling to recover after New Mexico connected on four consecutive 3-pointers to erase the deficit and eliminate UNLV, 61-58.
After posting an 11-20 record last year, the Rebels now sit at 22-9 overall — an improvement of 11 games, which is third best nationally. In coach Kathy Olivier’s fourth season, it’s safe to say the program turned a corner — regardless of Wednesday’s outcome.
“I just think we've done some amazing things this year with 22 wins,” Olivier said in the post-game press conference. “These two young ladies (junior Kelli Thompson and senior Sandrine Nzeukou) up here with me have literally changed the face of our program, along with the other seniors and ... Mia Bell.”
Thompson led UNLV with 16 points, including a 3-pointer to give the Rebels a 54-45 lead with eight minutes to play. They had trailed by three points at halftime but quickly erased the deficit and appeared in control to advance to the semifinals.
That was before New Mexico players couldn’t miss from the outside. The Lobos made 8-of-14 of their 3-pointers, and Nikki Nelson and Caroline Durbin had two apiece during the decisive rally to give New Mexico the lead for good. New Mexico closed the game on a 16-4 run in a game that featured nine ties and 16 lead changes.
“That is what we’ve done all year. We've gotten some huge stops,” Olivier said. “During that stretch we didn't. They hit some big shots.”
UNLV, which returned all five starters from last year, opened the season with six straight wins and entered the tournament on a five-game winning streak. The Lady Rebels were seeded No. 2 for the tournament — the first time they were a higher seed in a tournament game since 2004.
While doubling their win total from last year, senior post player Lenita Sanford was a first-team all-league selection, Thompson was picked for the second team, and junior point guard Bell from Las Vegas and rebounding leader Jamie Smith were third-team selections. Sanford and Bell were on the league’s all-defensive team.
“I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I wouldn't want to play with any other girls,” Thompson said. “We stick together. We win together. We lose together. Like I said, it's not how we wanted it to end.
“This season from last season, a totally different ballgame, totally different team. We play together. Our chemistry is that much better. We didn't finish how we wanted to. I feel like we kind of sold ourselves short. But, like I said, I wouldn't play for any other team.”
UNLV’s season could still continue. While it’s very unlikely, the Lady Rebels could receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament or, more realistically, play in the WNIT.
“The team is giving their guts. My staff has worked endless hours,” Olivier said. “We literally, this group, have changed the face of the Lady Rebels, and we're super proud of that.”
Bell added 12 points for UNLV, and Nzeukou and Sanford each scored 11.