BATON ROUGE, La. — Nearly 40 minutes after the buzzer rang in the 71-59 loss of No. 11 UNLV to No. 6 Michigan in the NCAA tournament, Justice Ethridge stands alone in the tunnel leading to the courthouse.
UNLV’s senior wing watches the game between No. 3 Louisiana State and No. 14 Hawaii on a television suspended above the tunnel. She put on her tracksuit. Ethridge’s basketball shoes are on the steps in front of her as she watches and waits for the rest of her team to pack up and leave the Maravich Assembly Center.
These are Ethridge’s final moments as a college basketball player.
“I hope they go even further next year,” she said.
Ethridge’s time in the tunnel marks the conclusion of a career that began five years ago – for a different coach in a different era, before expectation, conference championships and NCAA tournament appearances.
Everything that has happened since feels unimaginable for Ethridge, one of three seniors, along with forward Keyana Wilfred and guard Essence Booker, who are now set to depart after exhausting their eligibility.
“I don’t think I imagined any of this,” Ethridge said.
Ethridge, Booker and Wilfred helped oversee the program’s revival. The Lady Rebels were a mediocre Mountain West program when Ethridge arrived as a freshman in 2018. UNLV finished the 2018–19 season 12-18, placing sixth in the conference standings.
Coach Lindy La Rocque, who took over for the 2020-21 season, has since led UNLV to back-to-back regular-season and tournament championships at Mountain West, along with two NCAA tournament appearances in her three seasons.
However, those seniors are the ones who helped establish the team’s championship culture, La Rocque said. They bought their ideas, fulfilled their tasks and were committed to the success of the team. Leader on and off the field in the truest sense of the word.
“These three will forever be etched in my heart,” said La Rocque.
Ethridge said she hopes she was able to influence her teammates. She said she tried to lead with her actions, doing the right things and demonstrating the importance of attention to detail to the strong young core that La Rocque has recruited going forward. Most of them seem to get the message.
“They shaped this team,” said sophomore Alyssa Durazo-Frescas. “You left a mark on me”
Durazo-Frescas and fellow sophomore Alyssa Brown were starters this season, while another second, Kenadee Winfrey, made a key contribution from the bench.
La Rocque named sophomore guard Kiara Jackson, reigning Mountain West’s sixth player of the year, as Booker’s replacement as point guard during the post-game press conference. As the Lady Rebels begin to look forward to next season, their mentality and foundation for the future has been laid by Booker, Ethridge and Wilfred.
“They are the culture,” Durazo-Frescas said. “They are the reason we are 31-3 today. We couldn’t do it without them.”
Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at [email protected] Follow @ANYamashita on twitter.