Shafir’s 32 lead Rockets past EaglesWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rockets have been making a case game-in and game-out this season as to why they are in fact the No.1 overall team in the Mid-American Conference. On Feb. 23 at home against Eastern Michigan, humble junior guard Naama Shafir made the case as to why she deserves strong consideration for MAC Player of the Year, scoring a game-high 32 points as she went 14-of-15 from the free throw line and notched seven assists as Toledo hung on for a 65-64 victory over the Eagles. Shafir routinely got in the paint against Eastern Michigan, creating opportunities for both herself and her teammates as she scored her highest point total ever in Savage Arena.
“It takes the heat off a lot of players because you can tell she gravitates toward the ball whenever the game’s on the line,” Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop said of Shafir’s performance. “You’ve got to love that about her. She’s not someone that’s going to shy away from an intense moment. She thrives in those kind of opportunities, and we’ve seen it night-in and night-out.
“I hope she’s a candidate for [MAC] Player of the Year in this league because I think she put on that kind of a performance tonight.”
The victory clinched the Rockets of the MAC West Division title outright and at least a share of the MAC regular season title, their first since 2003 and eighth overall in school history. Sophomore center and Start graduate Yolanda Richardson also scored in double figures for Toledo, finishing with 10 points.
“It’s a big win,” Shafir said. “It’s [an] important win. We had to win to achieve our goal. We didn’t start good. I don’t really know what the reason is. We could easily just let the game go, but we came back and stayed together.”
In the first half, it looked like business as usual for the Rockets (21-6, 13-1 MAC) as senior guard Jessica Williams knocked down a three-pointer eight seconds after the opening tip. That’s when things got ugly for Toledo. Eastern Michigan (18-10, 9-5 MAC) scored 13 unanswered points and held a 10-point lead by the 16:01 mark. Sophomore forward Lecretia Smith ended the Rockets’ scoring draught with 14:08 remaining when junior guard Haylie Linn found her in the lane for the layup to make it 13-5.
After an Eagles’ turnover on their next possession, Shafir got the and-one on her layup and made it 13-8 at the 13:52 mark. Back-to-back treys from Tavelyn James extended Eastern Michigan’s advantage to 20-8 with 12:12 left to go in the half, forcing Cullop to call a timeout as James got her 11th point of the period. Toledo cut the deficit to single digits and trailed 36-31 at halftime in large part due to Shafir, who had 16 points and four assists at the break.
“It was all of us,” Shafir said. “They’re [Eastern Michigan] really physical. They play strong, and I just tried to stay strong and go to the basket a little bit more.”
Shafir continued to get to the basket in the second half as the Rockets battled their way back into the game. Trailing 44-35 at the 16:06 mark, Toledo went on a 10-0 run and took its’ first lead since its’ first basket of the game after Shafir knocked down her 11th consecutive free throw to make it 45-44 with 12:13 remaining in the game. Following senior forward Melissa Goodall’s floater off the glass to tie the game at 53 apiece, Shafir scored six-straight points to give the Rockets a 59-53 edge with 5:43 left to play.
Richardson scored her eighth point of the half when her layup put Toledo up 62-60 at the 3:39 mark, but India Hairston countered with a jumper on the Eagles’ ensuing possession to tie the game. However, Shafir came up big again for the Rockets, nailing a three-pointer as the shot clock expired with 55 seconds to go to give Toledo a 65-62 lead. Kristin Thomas answered with a putback layup to make it 65-64 on Eastern Michigan’s next trip down the court, but the Eagles decided not to foul on the Rockets’ ensuing possession and were unable to get the ball back as Toledo hung on for the win.
“It was great,” Richardson said. “We knew that we had to come out here and try to play our best because we had a big, heavy sack on our backs, so we knew we had to come out here and play intense.”
For Cullop, the win marked not only a personal accomplishment, but also a big accomplishment for the seniors in Goodall and Williams.
“It means an awful lot,” Cullop said. “I think the thing that would mean more is to win it outright. It’s neat to see that these seniors are going to go from 14 wins their freshman year to at least a minimum of a share of the MAC title. That’s a great career.”
The Rockets will be in action again Feb. 26 when they head to DeKalb, Ill. to face Northern Illinois (11-16, 5-9 MAC) at 4 p.m.