Jessica Williams, front, and Melissa Goodall hold up the trophy after the Rockets won the WNIT championship at Savage Arena. Toledo finishes the season with a record of 29-8. The win total is a program record.
Naama Shafir finishes cutting down the net with the help of Courtney Ingersoll. Shafir scored 40 points and was named the tournament MVP.
From the time the sun sets Friday evening until it sets again 24 hours later, Naama Shafir is not allowed to do a whole lot.
No riding in a motorized car. No flipping a light switch on or off. No pressing the button to the elevator at the team hotel.
But Shafir, an orthodox Jew, can play basketball. Boy, can she ever.
The University of Toledo junior point guard was sensational Saturday in the Women's National Invitation Tournament championship game at Savage Arena, slicing and dicing her way to 40 points in a 76-68 win over Southern California.Fueled by passionate crowds every night, the Rockets (29-8) went a perfect 6-for-6 in the 64-team tournament, beating teams from bigger conferences, and doing so in a variety of ways.
Saturday, it was supreme domination by Shafir that proved to be the difference against a USC team that has several athletic players but none with enough lateral speed to stay in front of the 5-foot-7 Shafir.
"She's as good as they come, and I think tonight she showed she's one of the best guards in the country," UT coach Tricia Cullop said.
When the final buzzer sounded, many of the 7,301 in attendance rushed the court as blue and gold confetti rained from the rafters. It is the first postseason championship won by the Rockets.
"What more could I ask for?" said Melissa Goodall, one of two UT seniors playing in her final game. "This is absolutely amazing. This has been a tremendous ride."
Another Sabbath restriction Shafir adheres to is not speaking with the media. But her game, built around creative dribbling and fancy finishes, spoke beautiful words.
She tied the game at 47 with a layup after executing a wicked cross-over dribble at the top of the key against 6-1 Christina Marinacci. Shafir followed with a jumper, then made a no-way-this-goes-in 3-pointer with one second left on the shot clock, and followed with a layup to represent her team's 10th straight point. After teammate Haylie Linn made her third 3-pointer of the game, the Rockets led 57-47 with 8:22 left.
Shafir, a no-brainer choice as tournament MVP, had four games in which she scored at least 15 points.
Rocket fans packed Savage Arena. The team fed off the crowd's energy during their six-game tournament run.
"It was amazing," Shafir's teammate, Yolanda Richardson, said. "She knew what she could do out there, and she knew her game, and she knew to keep going to the basket. They kept giving her opportunities, and she kept taking them."
USC rallied from a 14-point hole with 3:39 to go, cutting the lead to four with 36 seconds left. But with Shafir, UT was safe. She followed with six straight free throws to ice the game, finishing the second half with 28 points.
USC coach Michael Cooper said "three or four" of his players were assigned to Shafir, whose game he described as "deceptively quick, in and out, herky, jerky moves." For the game, Shafir was 13-of-27 from the field and 13-of-18 from the line.
"She had 40?" Cooper said, before laughing in disbelief. "Wow."
PHOTO GALLERIES, VIDEO
Click here to see a gallery from the Toledo-Southern California WNIT title game and celebration.
Click here to see a photo gallery of UT fans.
Click here to see a pregame video of coach Tricia Cullop talking to her squad.
Shafir was part of the initial recruiting class for Cullop, who managed to fend off bigger programs who may not have been interested in catering to Shafir's religious needs. To Cullop, any pains of dealing with the Israel native have been offset time and time again.
"She was unstoppable," said Cullop, who is 82-25 at UT. "She had that will and desire that she wasn't going to let this go the other way. Naama has shown that at times when we've needed her the most."
Shafir had help, both Saturday and throughout the tournament. Goodall nearly produced a double-double, recording 12 points and nine rebounds, and Linn had 10 points and eight boards. Richardson, who earned all tournament honors after stepping up her play significantly in the postseason, played solid defense against USC's post players and blocked two shots.
"This is something we're going to look back on for the rest of our lives," Richardson said.
USC, which advanced to the championship game with four straight road wins, fought until the end. Once they got down by 14, the women of Troy went on a 9-0 run to trim the lead to 69-62. From there, UT's Andola Dortch made one of two from the line, and USC's Jacki Gemelos followed with a great individual sequence. Gemelos was fouled on a made basket and missed the ensuing free throw only to snag the rebound and score a layup, making the score 70-66.
Despite the result, Cooper believed his team played well. Its shortcomings lied mostly in Shafir, and in a crowd that throughout the tournament has made it near impossible for opponents to perform at their peak level.
"I want to give a hardy hoorah to the University of Toledo," he said. "This is a team that is committed, and you saw that as they went through the WNIT."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6160.
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