Think one player can’t make a dramatic difference?
UNLV women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier might beg to differ after seeing Lenita Sanford impact her team’s fortunes.
Sanford, a 6-foot-3 senior post, has been nothing short of a beast for the Rebels this season. She averages 11.6 points, 7.6 rebounds and currently leads the Mountain West Conference in blocks at 2.8 per game.
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Sanford provides a post presence UNLV lacked when it finished 11-20 last season. She’s the one big change to Olivier’s player rotation and has helped turn the Rebels (14-5, 2-1 MWC) into instant conference contenders.
“With Sanford in the middle, they can be explosive,” said New Mexico coach Yvonne Sanchez, whose team hosts UNLV in a 2 p.m. contest today at the Pit. “She just changes the dynamic for (the Rebels) and makes them a lot tougher to match up against.”
Olivier knew it could happen. Sanford started the 2010-11 season at UNLV as a junior college transfer and was playing well. She was academically ineligible for the second semester, however, and the Rebels went 4-12 against MWC competition.
Things have been different this year.
“Lenita knows it’s her senior year and kind of her last chance,” Olivier said prior to the season. “She’s been a lot more focused, and she’s definitely a player who can make a difference.”
With Sanford joining returnees Kelli Thompson, Mia Bell, Sandrine Nzeukou and Jamie Smith in the starting lineup, UNLV has become a force. The Rebels already have conference road wins at Wyoming and TCU, the latter coming in one-sided fashion.
Sanchez said UNLV is comparable to San Diego State, which routed UNM earlier this week.
“UNLV is similar to San Diego State in some ways,” Sanchez said. “They both rebound well, and they both pressure the ball and trap. Obviously, we’ve got to box out and limit our turnovers a lot better than we did in San Diego.”
Failures in those two areas have plagued the Lobos in conference play. UNM has attempted 44 fewer shots than its opponents in losses to Boise State, Wyoming and SDSU.
Familiarity has added to the problem.
“Conference coaches watch a lot of film, and they know your weaknesses,” Sanchez said. “They’ve all seen that Caroline (Durbin) and Porche (Torrance) have been carrying our offense, so they make it difficult for us to get them the ball in position to score. We’ve got to find other ways to score and get more people sharing the load.”
UNLV has had no such problems. All five Rebel starters average at least 8.3 points per game.
Nor has Olivier had to deal with the sort of lineup juggling Sanchez has faced. UNLV has had the same starting lineup for 17 of its 19 games, and nine players have appeared in at least 18 contests.
Sanchez, meanwhile, has been patching things together with duct tape and bailing wire. With Jourdan Erskine (stress fracture) and Deeva Vaughn (concussion symptoms) sidelined, and Ashley Rhoades attending a USA Volleyball clinic, UNM will have seven scholarship players and two walk-ons in uniform today.
NOTE: UNLV’s Smith became the second MWC player to surpass 1,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds this week, joining former Utah star Kim Smith.
— This article appeared on page D5 of the Albuquerque Journal