Rockets WNIT victors 76-68Written by Chris Schmidbauer | | email@example.com
In a season filled with accolades, the UT Rockets women’s basketball team can add one more: WNIT Champions.
A seesaw affair from the start, the Rockets went on a 14-0 run, twelve of which were contributed by junior guard Naama Shafir, to put the midnight blue and gold up, and they would never look back.
“I’m incredibly proud of our team,” head coach Tricia Cullop said after the game. “To look at the string of wins that they put together is truly amazing. Only two teams can call themselves national champions at the end of the season, and we are one of them.”
While the Rockets are champions, it was due in large part to a 40 point effort from Naama Shafir. The junior guard shot 13-27 from the floor and 13-18 at the foul line. When it came down to it, Shafir saved her best performance of the season for the team’s last game.
Shafir, who is a practicing Orthodox Jew, was unable to speak to the media due to an observance of the Sabbath, so her teammates spoke for her.
“[Naama] has had dominating performances before, but none have been quite like this,” senior Melissa Goodall said. “Her will and her drive tonight were beyond anything I have seen before from her.”
Shafir’s personal twelve point scoring run started at the 11:53 mark in the second half when her drive to the basket tied the game up at 47-47. The highlight was a three pointer as time expired on the shot clock that brought the 7,301 fans packed inside Savage Arena to their feet.
“She just showed how much she has grown since she came her,” Goodall said. “She just didn’t quit today. She is our “little engine that could” I guess.”
The Rockets would push the lead to as much as 14 points after Goodall’s three put UT up 67-53 with 3:02 left to go in the second half.
USC was not done though. Over the final three minutes of the ballgame, USC would trim the lead to just four at 70-66 with 36 seconds left in the second half.
“It was frustrating because we missed free throws, and then we were giving up quick shots or fouling them,” Cullop said, remarking, “I don’t know if we were trying to help the T.V. ratings or what.”
The Rockets would look to Shafir once again to close out the ballgame. She would score UT’s last four points all at the charity stripe to close out the ballgame.
“As frustrated as I was, I was so happy that we made free throws down the stretch and cut down on turnovers to win,” Cullop said.
As the buzzer sounded and confetti fell, the UT student body stormed the court to celebrate the school’s first ever national championship in women’s basketball.
“We have worked extremely hard to get here, and I am just so happy that our seniors can go out with a win.
During the post game awards ceremony, sophomore Yolanda Richardson, a Toledo native, was named to the All WNIT Tournament Team, and Shafir was named the tournament’s MVP.
While honored to receive the personal accolade, Richardson said she was never concerned with personal accomplishments.
“I wasn’t really ever thinking about winning any individual awards,” she said. “To me this was about how could I help my team win a championship.”
Cullop said Richardson’s crucial play during the Rockets WNIT tournament run was a key to them winning.
“From the time we played our first game in the conference tournament till now, Yolanda has shown us the sky is the limit with her,” Cullop said. “Her defense and rebounding was big for us against USC today.”
Richardson admitted winning this game might carry a little more weight with her being a hometown girl.
“This was the goal [to win a championship] when I signed here two years ago,” the Start graduate said. “The point in coming here was to win and be a part of something like this for the city and university.”
Cullop said after the game that the win had yet to sink in with her but reflected on the team’s historic run.
“I met with some of the WNIT committee this morning and told them how great this run has been for program. Even though the first goal was to make the NCAA tournament, this run could have been the best thing for us,” she said.
Cullop said the team’s growing support has paid immediate dividends and allowed the program to do things that they would not have been able to in the NCAA.
“We got to share this experience with our fans, and it was so special to be able to have their support through this. That to me just makes this perfect.”