LAS VEGAS — At a recent practice, UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque was unmistakably the most commanding presence in the arena. The players’ eyes were locked on the 33-year-old, hanging on her every word.
That respect was earned. The Rebels, ranked in the top 25 for the first time since 1994, are riding a 22-game winning streak after beating Wyoming on Wednesday at Thomas & Mack Center for their second-consecutive Mountain West title.
The Stanford alum has led a stunning turnaround in her three seasons as UNLV’s coach. She took over a program that had gone 13-17 in 2019-20 and led it to a 15-9 record in her inaugural season. She followed that by ending UNLV’s 20-year NCAA Tournament drought last season, the 2021-22 Rebels (26-7) exiting in the first round in a five-point loss to Arizona.
Now La Rocque and UNLV (31-2) are ready to make some noise on the national stage.
“It feels like our team uncovers something new every week,” she said ahead of the Mountain West tournament. “A lot of things we don’t even know we’re doing until they happen — we hear about being in the top 25, or the tournament, and the history with it. Our focus has been intense.”
La Rocque was the second-youngest head coach to be hired in Division I women’s basketball at 30 years old. UNLV was taking a bit of a chance on the Las Vegas native, but she had the backing of the winningest coach in NCAA women’s basketball history in Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer.
“I am who I am in a basketball sense because of Tara,” La Rocque said. “Starting as an 18-year-old playing for her, I was trying to soak everything up. I would say about 99% of what I know about basketball is because of Stanford.”
La Rocque played four seasons at Stanford and went to the Final Four in each of them between 2009 and 2012. She started most of her junior season, went on to work at Oklahoma as a grad assistant, then spent two years at Belmont before VanDerveer brought her back to the coaching staff at Stanford.
She worked primarily with perimeter players, including future WNBA players Kiana Williams and Lexie Hull, and DiJonai Carrington before her transfer.
When the Rebels were in the Bay Area to face San Jose State, they practiced at Stanford’s Maples Pavilion. VanDerveer made an appearance, speaking to the team at La Rocque’s request.
“I don’t know that they could have asked her for any more than what she’s given them,” her former coach said. “Their team is on the map. She’s got them rolling.”
VanDerveer saw La Rocque as an extra coach during her playing days. Her dad, Al, was a longtime successful high school coach, including at Durango High School in Las Vegas from 1993 to 2007, where La Rocque played her freshman season for him.
“She’s confident and she knows the game,” VanDerveer said. “Her players feed off that energy. She understands the game and that’s half the battle. Her basketball IQ is through the roof.”
Essence Booker, a Las Vegas native who began her career at Nevada and was its leading scorer before transferring to Ball State in 2020, transferred to UNLV before last season and has been one of the conference’s top players under La Rocque’s guidance. Fellow Vegas native Desi-Rae Young has broken out this season, winning the Mountain West tournament MVP award with a 28-point championship game performance.
In November, La Rocque gave birth to her first child. Her water broke toward the end of an exhibition game and she missed just eight days, returning five days after she was discharged from the hospital. She missed one game, the season-opening victory over Pepperdine, before returning to face Oral Roberts a couple of days later.
“I didn’t know exactly how my life would change,” she said. “Our players, though, they love having a little baby around, and the support here has been amazing.”
In just three seasons under La Rocque, the Rebels are 72-18 overall and 52-9 in the Mountain West. They haven’t lost since defeats to Pacific and Oklahoma State in December, and they went undefeated in conference play and at home.
Despite the success, UNLV is 51st in the NET rankings, a factor the tournament committee uses when considering at-large teams. A loss in the Mountain West tournament could have ended the Rebels' postseason hopes.
UNLV was a No. 13 seed last season. Heading into selection Sunday as the No. 21 team in the nation, the Rebels aren't going to sneak up on anybody any longer.
“I didn’t have any specific milestones I wanted to hit,” La Rocque said. “But I’m not surprised at the success we’ve had, mainly because we have great players. It’s not all about me; our vision is going to fruition.”