Bowling Green's senior playmaker appeared to be a surefire candidate to claim the league honor for the third straight year. That is, until University of Toledo junior guard Naama Shafir turned in one of the best games of her career Wednesday night.
Shafir poured in 32 points, the most she's ever had at Savage Arena, while dishing out seven assists and the Rockets clinched at least a share of their eighth Mid-American Conference regular-season title and an outright West Division championship for the second straight year with a come-from-behind 65-64 victory over Eastern Michigan.
It is the Rockets' first MAC regular-season crown since 2003.
"Because of what was on the line, this is number one," UT coach Tricia Cullop said of where this game ranks in Shafir's pantheon of great performances. "She gravitates toward the ball whenever the game is on the line, and you've got to love that about her. She's not someone that's going to shy away from an intense moment."
None was bigger than the split-second decision Shafir made while dribbling along the right arc with less than a minute to play and the scored tied at 62. As the shot clock was winding down, Shafir paused, then fired a contested 3-pointer that swished through the net with 57.8 seconds to play.
Eastern Michigan came down and cut the deficit to one on Kristin Thomas' putback with 37.2 seconds left, but Shafir's clutch triple proved to be the final difference after the Eagles opted not to foul on the Rockets' next possession and the clock ran out.
"She thrives in those kinds of opportunities," Cullop said of Shafir. "We've seen it night in and night out, and I hope she's a candidate for player of the year in this league because I think she put on that kind of a performance tonight."
Sophomore forward and Start graduate Yolanda Richardson added 10 points, eight of which came in the second half, for the Rockets, who have a chance to claim an outright MAC championship for the first time since 2001 with a win Saturday at Northern Illinois.
"It means an awful lot, [but] I think the thing that would mean more is to win it outright," Cullop said. "We're happy to be where we are, it's taken a lot of work to get to this point, and the credit all goes to our players."
UT had to work especially hard just to have a chance to win against Eastern Michigan.
After UT senior guard Jessica Williams' triple from the left corner eight seconds into the contest, Eastern Michigan ripped off 13 unanswered points and led by as many as 15 points in the first half.
"Maybe we were nervous," Shafir said. "I don't really know the reason."
The Rockets were still behind 36-31 at halftime and trailed 44-35 with 16:11 remaining after Paige Redditt's layup from under the basket, with the assist going to Cassie Schrock after she saved the ball from going out of bounds along the end line.
UT sophomore forward Lecretia Smith responded by hitting a jumper at the other end, and following a media timeout, the Rockets reeled off eight more points to take their first lead since the opening seconds of the game on a pair of free throws from Shafir that made it 45-44 with 12:14 to play.
The lead changed hands two more times from there and was tied on three different occasions in the final 12 minutes, but it was the Rockets who moved their win streak to nine and swept the season series with Eastern Michigan for the second time in three years.
"It feels great," Richardson said. "We knew we had to come out here and try to play our best because we had a big, heavy sack on our backs. The first half was a little iffy, but we got in the locker room and recuperated ourselves and knew what we had to do to come out here and win."
Contact Zach Silka at: email@example.com or 419-724-6084.