weather icon Clear

Gordon: Desi-Rae Young the centerpiece of Lady Rebels’ turnaround

She was a recruiting afterthought. Offered only by Pepperdine and UNLV, for which she scored 16 points and grabbed 12 rebounds Tuesday night in the Mountain West tournament semifinals.

But Desi-Rae Young is probably the focal point of opposing scouting reports now, per Lady Rebels coach Lindy La Rocque. And Air Force’s was rather ineffective.

Try as they may, the Falcons could not keep the sophomore standout away from the basket or free-throw line during their Mountain West tournament matchup. She’s too relentless. Too physical. Too good.

“A handful,” La Rocque said.

And, as of Sunday, the Mountain West Player of the Year.

Young is at the epicenter of UNLV’s resurgence under La Rocque. Literally as the team’s top low-post presence and figuratively as the Desert Oasis graduate who bucked the recruiting rankings through her sheer force of will to spark her hometown team. She punctuated her performance Tuesday with an emphatic rejection in the final minute — and a proud proclamation during the post-game press conference.

“I want to make it all the way through. Even make it to the dance. That’s something I’ve been hoping for,” said Young, who bolstered her yearly averages of 15.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. “I want to put the city on my back and show them that I’m representing for them.”

Staying home

She’s done just that through two years with the Lady Rebels (25-6), to whom she committed after a stellar career with the Diamondbacks. Twice, she powered Desert Oasis to the Class 4A state tournament, reaching the championship game during her senior season of 2019-20.

As an undersized 6-foot-1-inch center, her recruitment remained tepid amid the perceived deficiencies that she’s since rendered moot.

UNLV’s previous coaching regime offered Young her scholarship. La Rocque and her staff inherited her commitment and everything that came with it — like her production in the lane and physicality on both ends of the floor.

They helped her average 12.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in 2020-21 to garner the Mountain West’s Freshman of the Year award. But they couldn’t prevent the Lady Rebels from losing to Wyoming in their conference tournament opener, prematurely ending a surprisingly successful season.

La Rocque retooled the roster, though, adding better players who just so happen to complement Young’s skills. Fifth-year transfer post player Khayla Rooks draws attention from opposing bigs and can space out to the 3-point line. Senior Justice Ethridge and freshman Alyssa Durazo-Frescas also open the floor with their shooting touch.

Junior transfer Essence Booker is the perfect point guard to play with Young, forming a blossoming pick-and-roll parternship with her scoring and passing abilities.

One more win

Suddenly, Young has more space to operate, whether on the block or the backboards, where she did her damage against the Falcons. Her play on the inside generates openings on the perimeter for her teammates, to whom she offered praise after the game.

La Rocque also recognized the play of Young’s teammates Tuesday while crediting the consistency that helped her capture the conference’s most prestigious individual honor. “I think that was recognized and respected by her opponents,” La Rocque said.

That it was.

The job isn’t finished though for Young, La Rocque or the Lady Rebels, who play Wednesday for the Mountain West championship. One more victory would clinch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament — and alleviate the sting that Young still feels from the loss last year to Wyoming.

She mentioned it without prompting Tuesday: “I’m trying to make a comeback. We lost at the beginning (of the Mountain West tournament).”

Without her, the Lady Rebels wouldn’t be at the end.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.