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La Rocque’s link to Olson, UA makes Saturday extra special

UNLV coach Lindy La Rocque knew where she was going.

Entering the McKale Center Friday ahead of UNLV’s final practice before Saturday’s NCAA Tournament first-round game against Arizona, an usher gave the team directions to its locker room.

La Rocque already knew exactly which direction they needed to go, though she didn’t say it out loud. “In a lot of ways, this feels like home too,” La Rocque said.

No. 13 seed UNLV (26-6) and No. 4 seed Arizona (20-7) will play at 7 p.m. in Tucson.

UNLV’s team has a lots of ties to the Wildcats.

Sophomore Jade Thomas will play her sister, Arizona’s senior wing Sam. Fifth-year forward Khayla Rooks gets a chance to play her first NCAA Tournament game on the same court where her father, Sean Rooks, dominated during his four-year stint with the Wildcats. Tucson native Alyssa Brown will play in front of friends and family.

None, however, have connections to the Wildcats like La Rocque. Legendary Arizona men’s basketball coach Lute Olson was her godfather. Her father, Al, played for Olson at Long Beach City College, and the families have been close ever since.

La Rocque still vividly remembers taking annual trips to Tucson with her father. They’d stay for a week, watch practice, spend time with Olson, explore the city and eat as much Mexican food as possible.

“Coach and his family have been part of my life since I have any memories,” she said. “Some of my earliest basketball memories are here in the McKale Center.”

Making her NCAA Tournament coaching debut on the court named after her godfather, La Rocque wishes Olson could have seen her lead her own team onto his court in person. He died in August, 2020.

However, Olson was alive to endorse La Rocque’s hiring a few months earlier in March. He mentioned La Rocque was the only girl to ever attend his Elite Basketball Camp and predicted her success.

“We know he’s watching up there,” La Rocque said.

Olson isn’t her only connection to Arizona. Jack Murphy, the Arizona men’s associate head coach, has known her since she was a child, and La Rocque said she’s always looked up to him as an older brother. He helped her father’s AAU team. Part of his job was babysitting La Rocque and her sister.

In particular, La Rocque remembered one tournament where Murphy taught them a catchy song about bubble gum while her parents were out. The girls then spent the rest of the weekend jumping between beds, singing the song.

While La Rocque wasn’t willing to share the song at her press conference, she promised to teach it to Murphy’s children if they didn’t already know it.

“I think my mother wanted to wring Murph’s neck when they got back,” she said.

With all her connections to Arizona, La Rocque acknowledged how special the moment will be, personally, when her team takes the court against the Wildcats.

“I have a lot of really good memories,” she said. “I’m keeping that with me.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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