Home away from home: Tucson holds special place to many UNLV players, coaches

LAS VEGAS — Much is to be determined beforehand, but playing at McKale Center in the first round of the NCAA tournament would be like coming home for many members of the UNLV women’s basketball program.

That’s why ESPN’s bracketology released Saturday indicating a matchup of UNLV-Arizona at McKale Center in a first round game was greeted with excitement by some of the Rebels’ relatives who live in Tucson or have ties there.

“Love to see UNLV at Arizona!!” Derek Thomas tweeted from Las Vegas.

Thomas’ daughters play for UNLV and Arizona — Jade, a sophomore, with UNLV and Sam, a fifth-year senior, at Arizona.

“No way seriously???” Alyssa Brown‘s mother Lisa Moore, a former Tucson High basketball standout who lives in Tucson, tweeted in response to a post that showed UNLV playing Arizona in a first-round matchup in Tucson.

Alyssa Brown (center) warms up before a UNLV practice with Alyssa Durazo-Frescas (Javier Morales/

Brown is the former Sahuaro High School standout who became one of the top scorers in Arizona history during her four-year varsity career in Steve Botkin’s program.

She is now a freshman reserve post player for the Rebels, who recently earned the Mountain West Conference regular-season championship.

UNLV (23-6) hosts the Mountain West tournment at Thomas & Mack Arena with games starting Sunday. The Rebels. led by second-year coach Lindy La Rocque, earned a bye to Monday’s quarterfinal round against either Fresno State or Utah State.

As a projected No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Rebels need to keep winning to solidify their bid. That seeding suggests UNLV will be a bubble team if they lose before the MWC championship game.

The Rebels won 16 of 17 games at one point but have lost two of their last three games, including a defeat against rival Nevada on Senior Night on Wednesday at Cox Pavilion adjactent to Thomas & Mack.

“We were definitely on a hot streak. We lost two out of the last three so we definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” said UNLV graduate transfer Khayla Rooks, daughter of former Arizona standout Sean Rooks.

“We can’t come in lax. We can’t come in non-chalant. We’ve gotta ramp it up. Lindy harps that this is our third new season, the postseason, so it’s a different level we have to get up for.”

Khayla’s Tucson tie is obviously with her late dad, an Arizona great who passed away from heart disease in 2016 on the same day he interviewed to be an assistant coach with the New York Knicks.

Before transferring to UNLV from Washington, she played the previous two Valentine’s Days with Washington against Arizona at McKale Center. That provided her the opportunity to put a heart-shaped balloon and roses on his poster in a hallway at McKale that honors Arizona’s greats.

Khayla Rooks practicing at the Richard Jefferson Gym while with Washington last season. Her dad’s picture is in the background (Rooks photo)

“He is the reason why I play basketball,” said Khayla, who has started all 27 games she’s played this year and is averaging 6.1 points and 5.3 rebounds a game.

“He is my connection to basketball and our relationship was surrounded by basketball. I defintely feel connected with him when I play basketball.”

The connection many of UNLV’s players and coaches have to Southern Arizona is noteworthy.

Aside from Khayla’s dad being Sean Rooks, Brown starring at Sahuaro and Jade being the sister of Sam Thomas, these Tucson ties exist:

— La Rocque is the only female to play in Lute Olson’s Elite Basketball Camp at McKale Center during the summer when he coached the Wildcats. La Rocque’s father Al, a former longtime coach at Las Vegas Durango High School, played for Olson at Long Beach City College. Al La Rocque told the Las Vegas Sun in 2008 when he retired after more than 30 years of coaching, “I learned about basketball from Lute Olson.”

— Freshman guard Alyssa Durazo-Frescas is the great grand daughter of Tucson historical figures Albert M. and Bertha “Bodie” Gallego. Albert Gallego has the skate park named after him at Santa Rita Park. Gallego, a native Tucsonan and graduate of Tucson High School, was president of The Santa Rita Neighborhood Association for several years and was involved in various city projects at the time of his death in 2008. He was a member of “Los Viejos Amigos,” a social club started in 1993. “Bodie” Gallego played semipro fastpitch softball in Tucson for the Flirts in the 1940s. Durazo-Frescas’s aunt Norma Gallego played for the Arizona softball program in 1975-76.

— Assistant coach Karlie Burris was a four-year starter at Salpointe who played for Pete Fajardo from 2001-05. She was part of the 2002-03 team that played in the Lancers’ first championship game.

She went on to play for the University of Portland in the West Coast Conference and later served as an assistant coach at NAU, Cal State Fullerton and Utah State before she was hired by La Rocque this season.

Burris began her coaching career working with former Arizona coach Joan Bonvicini when Bonvicini coached at Seattle University. Burris was a graduate assistant video coordinator with Seattle in 2011-12 — Bonvicini’s third year at the school.

Karlie Burris

— Director of basketball operations Amie Callaway visits Southern Arizona often with her dad Reggie residing in Marana. Reggie was an all-city running back at Cholla High School as a senior in the 1981 season who walked on at Arizona when Larry Smith coached the Wildcats.

— Long-time equipment manager Larry Chin, known for preparing Jerry Tarkanian’s towels, having them folded a certain way, told me Saturday that he was raised in Tucson. He has worked nearly 40 years in the UNLV athletic department as a coordinator of athletic equipment.

“Shows you what a small world it is,” Durazo-Frescas said of all the connections of UNLV to Southern Arizona.

The opportunity for UNLV to travel to Tucson in a couple of weeks to participate in the NCAA tournament at McKale Center is about as exciting for UNLV as it is for Adia Barnes and the Wildcats being the hosts.

Durazo-Frescas recently spent Christmas in Tucson with her family after driving from Las Vegas with Brown.

“It’s cool; it’s nice to have people who know something about you that really is kind of rare, Tucson,” Durazo-Frescas said. “(Brown) and Jade know something about Tucson, which is really cool. Nice little bonding moments to have with some teammates.

“I spent a lot of time there. Lived there for a little bit in Tucson. I still do. I go as much as I can. It’s a great place to be. It feels like home there.”

Durazo-Frescas and Brown make it a point to visit Eegee’s in their trips to Tucson — “I love Eegee’s,” Durazo-Frescas said — and Durazo-Frescas also makes her way to St. Mary’s Mexican Food restaurant.

“It’s a cool place; you have to know Tucson to really love it, and I really love it,” she said.

Brown is adapting to being a reserve as a freshman at UNLV after becoming one of the best players in Tucson history during her career at Sahuaro.

A Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year selection, Brown holds Sahuaro’s single-season scoring record at 932 points. Her 2,680 career points from 2017-21 is second in the state’s history behind 2,913 scored by Julie Brase at Catalina Foothills from 1994-98.

If COVID-19 did not severely impact Sahuaro’s scheduling last season, Brown likely would have passed Brase as the state’s career scoring leader.

Brown said getting acclimated to college basketball as a reserve has “definitely made me develop as person character-wise.”

“It’s made me learn it’s a lot more than just scoring,” she added. “You have to be an energy-giver. You have to be able to communicate. You have to always stay ready. You have to read off of people. Not being a top scorer you have to find other ways to contribute. It’s developed me all around.”

Jade Thomas has seen her sister Sam progress into a star from when they were teammates at Centennial High School in Las Vegas (Sam was a senior in 2016-17 and Jade was a freshman).

Jade has made the trip to Tucson many times with her family to watch Sam play in previous years.

She has a good sense of what Tucson is all about and how much the people admire Sam for all of her achievements on and off the court as one of the Pac-12’s top players and being a quality student who is an active contributing member of the community.

“It’s a tremendously competitive household because we have a younger brother too who plays,” Jade said of Shane Thomas. a Class of 2022 standout at Durango High School in Las Vegas. “Two-on-two all the time, growing up with them, helped me be competitive and stay ready.”

Jade said she has a lot to live up to following Sam’s exploits.

“It’s definitely a lot of pressure because she is so incredible,” Jade said. “It’s just nice that you can be a good basketball player and a good person, and that it matters. I know a lot of people in Tucson respect her just from being a good person.

“So it makes me want to be a good person as well in this community.”

Alyssa Brown is in her first year at UNLV after a storied career at Sahuaro High School in Tucson (Javier Morales/

FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER! publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports,, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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