A furious second-half comeback paved the road to Nevada’s 62-59 victory over in-state rival UNLV on Wednesday at Lawlor Events Center in Reno.
Trailing 29-23 at halftime, Nevada outscored UNLV 39-30, then held off a late surge from the Rebels. The Wolf Pack extended their win streak to three games, improving to 13-12 overall and 6-8 in the Mountain West Conference.
Nevada is hitting its stride with four games left in the regular season. The Wolf Pack are still vying for a late postseason push.
“We want to finish with a winning record and have an opportunity to play in the postseason,” head coach Amanda Levens said. “That’s the goal of our program is that we play in a tournament. Whether that be the NCCA Tournament, NIT or the WBI. … We’re just trying to win every game and have the best record possible.”
UNLV — which started the year 1-5 — split the Silver State Series, falling to 12-12 overall and 8-5 in the Mountain West Conference.
“You want the bragging rights for the state,” Levens said. “We’re the only Division-1 teams in the state, so you want it to be yours. Since, I’ve been here it’s really competitive and tonight was no different.”
Nevada shot 47 percent from the floor and 31 percent from 3-point range. Marguerite Effa scored a team-high 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting off the bench. Nia Alexander added 11 points and four rebounds. Essence Booker also had 11 points. Da’Ja Hamilton added nine points and three steals. Amaya West chipped in with seven points.
Booker didn’t let the pressure of the moment cloud her head at the free throw line. The sophomore guard swished four from the stripe in the last minute to seal Nevada’s win.
“I went up to (Alyssa Jimenez) and said that her best bet is to get me the ball because I’m gonna make the free throws,” Booker said.
The Wolf Pack forced their will in the second half on both ends of the floor, shooting 59 percent in the second half and forcing 11 turnovers.
“We need to play like that defensively for all four quarters,” Levens said. “I thought we played pretty well in the first quarter. … But we stopped be aggressive on that end until those closing moments.”
UNLV shot just 33 percent from the floor and 13 percent from 3-point range. Latecia Smith scored a game-high 17 points. Senior center Rodjanae Wade had 15 points and hauled in 15 rebounds.
Booker, Imani Lacy, Alyssa Jimenez, Jená Williams and Alexander made up the starting five for the Wolf Pack. Nevada donned blackout uniforms with silver trim.
Effa’s down-low bucket put Nevada up 4-2 early in the first quarter. The teams shot just 33 percent in the opening 10 minutes. Justice Ethridge’s 3-pointer gave UNLV a slim 11-10 advantage heading into the second quarter.
Nevada tied the contest 17-17 off Da’Ja Hamilton’s backdoor layup. The Lady Rebels responded with six unanswered points to regain the lead. UNLV forced the issue in the second quarter and led 29-23 at the half.
UNLV pushed its lead to the double-digit mark four minutes into the third quarter. Booker’s corner 3-pointer trimmed Nevada’s deficit to 39-30.
Alexander’s back-to-back baskets fueled the Pack’s comeback as they trailed 43-41 heading into the fourth quarter.
Nevada jumped to a 49-47 lead three minutes into the final quarter. UNLV tied it up before Hamilton’s 3-pointer put Nevada back ahead 54-51.
The Lady Rebels cut the Pack’s lead to one point with 15 seconds remaining, but Nevada secured the win at the free throw line.
Up Next: Nevada returns to Lawlor Events Center to face New Mexico on Wednesday, Feb. 19.
— Isaiah Burrows