LAS VEGAS — In the aftermath of the Vegas Golden Knights destroying the Florida Panthers 9-3 to win the Stanley Cup, I was still feeling a bit proud of the fact I’ve now covered two Las Vegas major professional championship teams in less than one year.
Roughly eight months after the Las Vegas Aces won the 2022 WNBA title, the Golden Knights are the freshly crowned champions of hockey, delivering the prized silver chalice in the franchise’s sixth year of existence — exactly how owner Bill Foley predicted.
As Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final approached on Tuesday, it got me thinking about the championships won by Southern Nevada teams, dynasties over the years at every level – from Little League to high school, to UNLV, to now pro sports – and what has the biggest been.
There are some who weren’t born when UNLV was an annual powerhouse in college basketball and can’t appreciate the magnitude of the program, and the foundation laid for our town. Others, who are transients, and only know pro sports, might not understand or appreciate what Bishop Gorman did to bring college football scouts to town annually for every high school in the valley. How about what Centennial girl’s basketball has done for Southern Nevada recruits, or more recently, what homegrown Lindy LaRocque has done to resurrect the UNLV women’s basketball program?
There’s a laundry list of championships, and an even longer catalog of sports moments, especially if you throw the numerous boxing matches this town has seen.
So where does that leave us?
Here are my Top 5 Southern Nevada sports championship teams. These may differ from yours, and you know what – you’re right too. But for someone who has been here since 1972, and knows the significance and understands the meaning of the following championship teams, this is what I believe to be the Top 5 sports championships won for Southern Nevada:
1. UNLV Men’s Basketball: 1990 National Championship – All biases in place, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince old-school Las Vegas folks to supplant beloved Jerry Tarkanian and the Runnin’ Rebels. After all, they were the NCAA’s biggest enemy, and no matter how hard the college athletics’ sanctioning board tried, nothing would stop a freight train led by three eventual first-round draft picks in 1991. The Runnin’ Rebels still hold the record for the largest margin of victory with their 103-73 rout of the Duke Blue Devils. And this championship was done during a time there were less than one million residents, and all Southern Nevada had ever known was UNLV hoops. From the first Final Four team that played in the Las Vegas Convention Center’s spaceship-resembling Rotunda, to the second Final Four team that took the Thomas and Mack Center to another level. By the time Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt and George Ackles arrived, Runnin’ Rebel Fever spread beyond Southern Nevada, as the program became a nationwide phenomenon.
2. Vegas Golden Knights: 2023 Stanley Cup Championship – “Playoffs in 3, Cup in 6” was owner Bill Foley’s mantra long before a Golden Knight touched the ice in 2017. That 2018 squad that made it to the Stanley Cup Final was special for so many reasons. A win over the Capitals might have landed that particular team on this list. This year’s squad undoubtedly jumps to No. 2, as first-year coach Bruce Cassidy came in with an assembled group that included Vegas’ own Original Six – a sextet from the inaugural Knights – several former Stanley Cup champs, and a group of other talents that provided depth throughout the lineup. The Knights, seeded No. 1 overall in the Western Conference, were favored in the opening round but were underdogs in the West Semis and West Final. Far too many outside the organization questioned the legitimacy of goaltenders Laurent Brossoit and Adin Hill, but both defied critics and provided lockdown performances along the way. The most electrifying arena in the NHL came back to life in June, and making good on Foley’s promise, the Knights hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in their sixth year of existence.
3. Las Vegas Aces: 2022 WNBA Championship – While there was plenty of debate if the Aces became the town’s first pro sports champion, considering there were a handful of minor league titlists that made their way through Southern Nevada with now-defunct leagues, Las Vegas’ first ladies of basketball were most certainly the first major pro sports champion. Long considered a fraternity of four – the NHL, MLB, NBA and NFL – when it came to “major” pro sports, the Aces barged their way into the conversation, deservedly so, led by Coach of the Year Becky Hammon, league MVP A’ja Wilson and Finals MVP Chelsea Gray. Throughout the season, guard Kelsey Plum had fans barking with Dawg Mentality, while soft-spoken Jackie Young and two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby complemented the best team in the WNBA
4, Bishop Gorman Football: 2016 Mythical National Championship – The Gaels completed their third consecutive undefeated season, running their record to 54-0, and were crowned mythical national champions for a third consecutive year. Under coaches Tony Sanchez (2014-15) and his brother Kenny (2016), the Gaels finished No. 1 in the USA Today Top 25 rankings and established itself as an annual national contender. During the run, they beat 16 out-of-state opponents, many of which were also in the Top 25 during the three-year stretch. The Gaels featured three All-Americans, including national Gatorade Player of the Year, quarterback Tate Martell. Haskell Garrett and Bubba Bolden were also All-Americans on that team.
5. UNLV Men’s Golf: 1998 National Championship – The Rebels became the second national championship program for the university and cemented what everybody knew when Tiger Woods considered coming to town – UNLV was a national powerhouse under coach Dwaine Knight. The Rebels shot a final-round one-over par 289 to finish at a blistering 34-under-par 1,118, setting the NCAA record for the lowest total in history. The Rebels also set the national record for the lowest team score after two rounds with a 23-under par. This team featured All-Americans Jeremy Anderson, Bill Lunde, Chris Berry and Charley Hoffman and set a school record with seven team tournament titles during the 1997-98 campaign. Knight also earned conference, regional and national Coach of the Year honors.