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Hampton’s leadership has UNLV poised to take next step

Doesn’t it always work this way?

Well, no.

Seniors don’t always buy in to a new coach’s philosophy and strategy and ways of trying to rebuild a struggling college basketball program. Seniors often begin their final season counting the seconds until the end arrives, knowing they won’t be around should the transformation from bad to good happen.

Seniors can be awfully childish.

You still can discover success with this kind of dissension, but it’s better when things happen as they did for UNLV’s women this season.

When someone like Shamela Hampton decides to be as important a leader as she is a player.

UNLV’s season ended Friday with a 71-63 loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinals at the Thomas & Mack Center and with it the Rebels’ upset run through the event as a No. 7 seed.

It ended because the Aztecs are the better team with better players and because it seems the next time UNLV beats San Diego State in basketball, the conference will have adopted checkers as a sanctioned sport.

But of all the six games UNLV lost to the Aztecs this season — three each on the men’s and women’s sides — the defeat Friday might have told the most about the future of a Rebels program.

You won’t look twice at a final record of 14-18. It suggests mediocrity in an unpredictable manner. But you can’t contend until you stabilize. You can’t be good until you become consistent.

Hampton more than anyone else helped UNLV mature into more of the latter this season, off the floor as much as on. She accepted first-year coach Kathy Olivier from the first individual workout, and others followed. She chose to motivate rather than distract.

"Shamela was a dream," Olivier said. "She bought in from Day 1. I mean, she bought in. She took ownership. I think for her it was more about making it a good senior year for her and her teammates … I wish we didn’t have as many ups and downs."

Said Hampton: "I’m honored to have played for (Olivier). We fell short, but I’m glad how we ended the season."

Rebuilding is a process that on average takes at least three years. That’s how long it took Beth Burns to lift San Diego State from 0-16 in the conference to its most talented team this season. Sometimes, it takes longer. Sometimes, it never happens.

Olivier won’t fail for lack of ability or passion. She played at UNLV, knows UNLV, loves UNLV. She also has a recruiting class ranked 56th nationally and a Mountain West Freshman of the Year returning in Jamie Smith.

But when you see 29 points and 11 rebounds in a tournament semifinal from a departing center, you realize the gap that needs filling.

Hampton willed the Rebels back from an 18-point second-half deficit to within two against the Aztecs. UNLV just wasn’t good enough to make the next play. To take the final step.

Women’s basketball is unique in that either traveling doesn’t exist or no one explained the violation to Mountain West officials. As it is, the teams still combined for 40 turnovers. It came down to players. Skill. Quickness. Execution.

San Diego State had a lot more of it.

"UNLV had beaten (Brigham Young and Texas Christian this week), and that gave them momentum," Burns said. "Coaching is about fits. I applaud UNLV for getting someone with energy and enthusiasm. (Olivier) and I have recruited against each other since we were both 25 years old. She’s going to do it because she will remain positive and get after it.

"It wasn’t that long ago when we had a little Cinderella box in our closets as well. We understood where they are."

Next season will be interesting for several reasons. How much can one week of conference tournament momentum pay off? How much can a terrific young player like Smith improve when she doesn’t have a proven center like Hampton to play off? How much of that recruiting class immediately can contribute?

Season two.

A projected young team.

No Hampton.

"I’m here for a reason, and I thought this last week was that reason," Olivier said. "(The players) felt good about what they gave this community, what they gave the students."

What they gave them is a possible glimpse of the future. There are worse things.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.