Rebels women’s basketball:

Behind experienced senior, UNLV women look to reload instead of rebuild

Kelli Thompson has the skills to build off last year’s 22-10 season, but only if she can get a group of young players to follow her lead

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV Lady Rebel basketball player Kelli Thompson is seen Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012.

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There are two ways to look at the UNLV women’s basketball team’s 2011-12 season. The most obvious, and probably most accurate, is to view it as a success. UNLV went 22-10, its first 20-win season since 2003-04, finished second in the league and went to the postseason for the first time since 2006.

Rebels coach Kathy Olivier is one of many who focus on those positives when looking at how her team performed.

“It took us four years to get to the point we got to last year,” Olivier said. “We completely changed the mentality around here.”

Senior guard Kelli Thompson recognizes all of those things, but she doesn’t dwell on them. For her, the season will be remembered for how it ended: getting upset in the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament by New Mexico and losing to Saint Mary’s in the first round of the WNIT — back-to-back losses that dampened what the Rebels had accomplished going into the games.

“I felt like we could have won the WNIT,” Thompson said. “(Last year) was a positive-negative, because it fueled me to come back and make sure these younger ones don’t have the same feelings I did.”

Thompson was the leading scorer last season and has averaged double-digit points since she stepped on campus in Olivier’s second season, ranking 13th on UNLV’s all-time scoring list. Olivier was recruiting Thompson when the former was still the coach at UCLA and the latter was a talented prep in Compton, Calif. For Thompson, Las Vegas offered an opportunity to get away from home — but not too far away — and develop under a coach she already trusted.

“When she got the job here I was looking for something different,” Thompson said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I could make my own mark. I didn’t want to go in and fit in and be like everyone else.”

Thompson has increased her points, minutes and steals each season while starting all 94 games in her career. The Rebels’ success this year depends on Thompson and Mia Bell in the backcourt, because outside of those, two there isn’t a whole lot of experience on the roster.

Bell, a Durango High grad, and Thompson were two of the top three leading scorers last season. The other four players who ranked in the top six all graduated, and those happened to be the four leading rebounders, too.

In their place are a lot of young, unproven players. The tallest is 6-foot-3 freshman Jazzmeen Williams. There’s also Rejane Verin and Amie Callaway, a pair of 6-1 freshmen, and 6-1 sophomore Alana Cesarz, the interior player with the most experience.

“The reality is we’re going to have some drop-off, but they work like hell, they compete and we had to teach that before,” Olivier said. “Now we’ve earned that mentality. There’s a standard now for the Lady Rebels.”

UNLV’s size disadvantage is one more reason the team will lean on Thompson. Listed at an even 6-foot, she’s arguably the most physical player on the team. She’s just as comfortable driving and finishing at the rim as she is tossing up a 3-pointer, and this offseason Thompson said she tried to complete the arsenal with a mid-range game.

The other thing she worked on was becoming more vocal, although to hear Olivier tell it, Thompson only needed to improve doing that on demand. Thompson’s never had a problem instructing or chastising her teammates when it felt right.

“The minute I ask her to speak up, that’s when she doesn’t,” Olivier said. “Last year in the locker room, she was always the one speaking up. Now the spotlight’s on her.”

Olivier is comfortable with Thompson doing the teaching because the senior is very knowledgeable of the game. Thompson’s father played football at Cal State Fullerton, but her brother was a three-star basketball recruit and her uncle taught her travel team. From the fourth grade on, basketball has been her passion and obsession, so much so that she attends local high school games just to get her fix.

Thompson will have a chance to play professionally when this season is done. The only question that remains is how she will remember the final season of an already stellar career.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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