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Lindy La Rocque embraces challenges in first year at UNLV

Lindy La Rocque still carries plenty of memories from her time as a UNLV basketball ball girl.

She remembers watching former Rebels like Keon Clark, Mark Dickel and Kevin Krueger. She thinks back to wanting to be best friends with three-time Mountain West player of the year Linda Frohlich. She even recalls nearly be trampled by fans when the men’s team won a conference tournament.

Wednesday, she’ll return to the Thomas & Mack Center, where so many of those formative basketball experiences took place. This time she’ll be in a far more important role: UNLV women’s basketball coach.

La Rocque, who became a great player at Durango, a standout at Stanford and a fast-rising coach after her ball-girl days, will debut on the Lady Rebels’ bench at 1:30 p.m. against Northern Arizona. Her first head coaching gig has already provided her with plenty of obstacles, but she’s ready to get the ball rolling.

“I’ve told more people than I probably should have, but I’ve said if we can do this in the first year, then it’s downhill, we’re smooth sailing after this,” La Rocque said. “Throw us any challenge, any curveball, any adversity and we’re like ‘Cool, that’s no skin off our back. We can handle that.’”

It’s hard to list all the things La Rocque has had to navigate since being hired in March. Durango’s all-time leading scorer (boys and girl) was already arriving at a program that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2002. But COVID-19 has made her job even more challenging as she tries to pull together a team that has just one returning starter and two upperclassmen on the roster.

The Lady Rebels, picked to finish ninth in the11-team Mountain West this season, have a long way to go to become a contender. So La Rocque has focused on the basics: Building team chemistry and making her players better.

“She has such a high basketball IQ and being able to take in all the knowledge and the teachings that she has is really exciting,” sophomore forward Delaynie Byrne said. “It’s just pushing everybody to new limits.”

La Rocque has made it a point to get her players comfortable being uncomfortable on the court as she seeks to expand their games. For Byrne, that means dribbling between her legs, taking pull-up shots and learning more guard moves than she ever thought possible.

For senior guard Bailey Thomas, the 2020 Mountain West defensive player of the year, that means shooting of ball screens and growing her offensive game.

La Rocque’s passion has already rubbed off on her players, and it seems to be working with recruits too. Thomas said it’s obvious La Rocque is a coach’s daughter. Her father, Al La Rocque, coached 19 years between Western and Durango and ranks eighth all-time in wins locally.

“I would say she’s intense, but she’s intense with a purpose,” Thomas said. “Everything she says is instructive. She just wants to get the best out of you.”

La Rocque hopes maximizing her current group will be the first step in raising up a program she calls a “sleeping giant.” With a resume that includes coaching connections with Hall of Famers Sherri Coale of Oklahoma and Tara VanDerveer of Stanford, she didn’t have to come home to UNLV. She acknowledges she would likely face less pressure as a first-time head coach anywhere but her hometown.

That challenge, however, and the ones that have followed have never intimidated her. It’s why she has a chance to make some new memories on the Thomas & Mack floor starting Wednesday.

“Our potential is untapped, and there’s really no ceiling,” La Rocque said. “I’m excited to see how far or how high we can take this.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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