BATON ROUGE, La. – Alyssa Brown, standing in the hallway outside UNLV’s dressing room after the NCAA tournament first-round loss to Michigan on Friday, joked that she was emotionally reflecting on a season that ended less than half an hour ago went.
“This team really has my heart, really,” she said.
She paused. Tears started to form in her eyes. A member of the support staff handed her some tissues.
It’s rare enough for a season to reach its potential, even rarer to exceed many of its wildest expectations. So when a campaign as special as the one the Lady Rebels experienced comes along, those involved can only enjoy and appreciate it.
“You’ve always had my back,” Brown said. “You got me to where I am today. I will forever be grateful for this team, for this team and for being part of a season like this.”
UNLV’s historic season rewrote most of the program’s record books. The 2022-23 Lady Rebels won a record 31 games. They went undefeated in the Mountain West game, becoming the second team in conference history to accomplish that feat on an 18-game roster. This was their second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
The Lady Rebels had more field goals, more 3-pointers and shot the highest percentage of free throws in program history.
“We have a damn good team,” said La Rocque.
On paper, it looked like the Lady Rebels were poised for a big run this season. A regular season and tournament championship during the 2021-22 season ended in a near-upset by Arizona in the NCAA tournament, and UNLV brought back nearly every major contributor.
Point guard Essence Booker and veteran wing Justice Ethridge capitalized on their fifth season of eligibility from the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth center Desi-Rae Young was named Conference Player of the Year, and sharpshooter and sophomore Alyssa Durazo-Frescas was looking to take the next step forward.
UNLV also had a ready replacement for outgoing starter Khayla Rooks in the conference’s reigning sixth player of the year, Nneka Obiazor.
The Lady Rebels won their first seven games despite briefly missing La Rocque after she gave birth just days before the start of the season. UNLV eventually ran into some adversity in early December. It lost its first game on December 3 to Pacific, then Obiazor lost a season-ending knee injury in practice on December 6.
UNLV was beaten by Oklahoma State in the penultimate game of the non-conference season on December 18 in Stillwater, Oklahoma.
“Really proud of our fight and just being able to stay together through a lot of adversity since November, honestly,” La Rocque said.
UNLV’s loss to Oklahoma State was their last loss before they lost 71-59 to Michigan in the NCAA tournament. La Rocque eventually chose Brown to replace Obiazor, and the Lady Rebels went on a 22-game winning streak and set another program record. The finished 31-3.
Booker, Ethridge and Young were named All-Mountain West, La Rocque was named second Coach of the Year, and Kiara Jackson followed Obiazor as sixth Player of the Year.
The Lady Rebels’ dominance extended to the conference tournament as well. UNLV beat UNR, fending off San Diego State in the semifinals and driving past second-placed Wyoming to the championship. Young was named tournament MVP after failing to repeat himself as the conference’s player of the year.
Ethridge said the secret of the team’s success is a desire to see everyone win and be recognized. She said there was never any animosity between teammates.
“I think that’s something very special that you don’t find in many teams,” she said.
Now the Lady Rebels need to move forward once again, but this time they will lose some key contributors. Booker, Ethridge and Keyana Wilfred, a key voice in the locker room, have exhausted their authority.
Jackson, Durazo-Frescas, Brown, second-year reserve staffer Kenadee Winfrey and freshman Jasmyn Lott, among others, represent the new generation who will seek to help Young push UNLV past the first round of March Madness for the first time since 1991 .
“We have great young players,” said La Rocque, “who have some big shoes to fill.”
Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at [email protected] Follow @ANYamashita on twitter.