With a deep roster, UNLV enters season with great expectations, hoping to build on last season’s success

UNLV head coach Kathy Olivier (Aaron Mayes / UNLV Photo Services).
UNLV head coach Kathy Olivier. Photo: Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services.

Even with the loss of two starters, twin sisters that combined for 23.1 points per game and 9.3 rebounds per contest last season, UNLV comes into 2017-18 with great expectations. While Dakota and Dylan Gonzalez were instrumental in helping the team set records for conference victories and finish 22-11 last season, their departure to focus on entertainment careers in no way depleted the high-level talent on the squad.

“I still think we’re good,” said head coach Kathy Olivier before beginning a roll call of key returners. “We have Nikki Wheatley back from her knee injury. She will be the starting point guard. We have good size inside. We expect a lot in Brooke Johnson as a senior. She’s done so many positive things for our program.”

Wheatley suffered a season-ending injury last December when the Lady Rebels were leading top-25 Oregon State in the fourth quarter. She was averaging 10.3 points per game. Wheatley received a medical redshirt and has two years of eligibility left.

Johnson’s senior year marks her fourth straight season in the team’s starting lineup. She led the conference in steals for the second straight year last season and earned a place on the Mountain West All-Defensive Team.

Other key contributors include two junior forward/centers, 6-2 Paris Strawther and 6-4 Katie Powell as well as 6-1 forward Jordyn Bell. In addition, the team returns sophomore center Rodjanae Wade.

“We have a lot of post players inside,” Olivier said, “we just have to see how we gel as a team.” She described Wade as a long player who “can run the floor like a gazelle, just gets up and down.”

The team’s newcomers include two freshmen, 5-3 guard Kavionnia Brown and 6-5 center Krista Jackman.

Olivier describes Brown as “super feisty” and “aggressive” with “a high basketball IQ.” She’s “savvy, sees the floor well so, a true point guard.”

With the full slate of returners plus the two first years, Olivier, who is heading into her 10th year at UNLV, is pleased with the team’s depth.

“We’re going to probably go nine or ten deep which is nice because our freshmen from last year have come a long way.”

UNLV will need that depth to compete successfully in the program’s tough non-conference schedule to start out the season. The team may end up playing six straight contests against 2017 NCAA participants depending on their performance in three tournaments: the Lady Rebel Round-Up in late November, the ASU Classic at Arizona State in early December and the Duel in the Desert in late December.

After the ASU Classic, the Lady Rebels hit the road to face West Coast Conference powerhouse Gonzaga followed by perennial top ten team Stanford.

Olivier, who received a four-year contract extension through 2020-21 in August, is excited by the heavy-duty schedule.

“For us, this team wants to be challenged. They’re excited about the schedule. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to go undefeated by any means, but I think it’s going to really show us where we are at the beginning of the year and see what we’re made of.”

The road contest at Stanford in a hostile Maples Pavilion may be the toughest game in the regular season. Sitting at No. 10 in the preseason AP poll and No. 9 in the preseason USA Today Coaches rankings, the Cardinal return much of the squad’s starting lineup that reached the Final Four last season.

“Maples. Not fun. Tara. Even more not fun,” joked Olivier about facing Hall of Fame coach Tara VanDerveer. “I think Tara is one of the best coaches in the country and I think people don’t give her enough credit. I mean every year there are people who are counting her out…I mean last year I thought, people didn’t really talk about them a lot….I think she does an amazing job and I know at Maples they’re very, very tough to beat. So, we’re playing some good games on the road.”

The WNBA Arrives in Las Vegas

Before UNLV’s season got underway, the Olivier, her staff and players were excited to hear the news of the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars’ move to Las Vegas last month. The coach is an avid fan of the league with several jerseys from WNBA players hanging in her office.

“I think it’s great,” Olivier said about the new Las Vegas team. “It’s good for the UNLV Lady Rebels because it’s another good women’s team showcasing what women’s basketball is about at another level, at a professional level. I think it’s great for the city. We’re getting more and more pro sports teams. I think it is an exciting time for Las Vegas. I hope that the community supports it. I know that the WNBA takes so much pride in doing community outreach and you know making sure that the players are out there and you’re connecting with the players and I think the city is going to love all that.”

She did have one note of caution.

“But I will tell you, Las Vegas, they like winners and you need to win. I know San Antonio had some struggles but next season is going to be a new year.”

While the Las Vegas WNBA team prepares to begin play next summer, UNLV will be aiming for another postseason run, hopefully in the NCAA tournament.

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