The potentially game-tying 3-pointer rattled off the rim in the closing seconds of overtime, sealing the University of Toledo’s elimination from the 2012 Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT).
Injured point guard Naama Shafir could only watch from the sideline, as she had virtually all season, while the Rockets were ousted by the Syracuse squad she had sliced and diced for 22 points the year before en route to WNIT MVP honors and Toledo’s first postseason tournament title.
“It was very hard,” Shafir said. “Especially when the game wasn’t going so well or it wasn’t really close, I just wanted to be out there on the court to help the team.”
Shafir, a native of Hoshaya, Israel, tore her right anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) on an awkward landing after driving to the basket in the first minute of an early season game at Indiana on Nov. 25, 2011.
“When it happened, it was really painful, but then after a minute it didn’t hurt anymore,” Shafir said.
The three-time All-Mid-American Conference selection returned to the game, but her knee promptly gave out when she tried cutting across the court.
“In that moment I just knew,” Shafir said. “I could feel that I tore my ACL.”
MRI results confirmed her fears and in mid-December she underwent reconstructive surgery on her right knee at ProMedica Toledo Hospital. The rehabilitation that followed was tough, according to Shafir, but the choice forced upon her by the injury was perhaps even more difficult.
A senior during the 2011-12 season, the frontrunner to win Mid-American Conference player of the year was set to graduate and return to Israel in May. Because she competed in fewerthan 30 percent of the Rockets’ games and did not play past the midway point of the season, Shafir was granted a medical hardship waiver, giving her an extra year of eligibility.
Speculation swirled, however, that Shafir would bypass her last year of college eligibility to rejoin her parents, four brothers and four sisters. Already a member of the Israeli national team, some expected Shafir to begin her professional career back home.
After weeks of deliberation, a feeling of gratitude and the desire to complete unfinished business won out and Shafir announced her decision to return to the University of Toledo.
“It took me a while to make a choice,” Shafir said. “But I got to thinking, ‘That’s not how I want to finish here. I still want the chance to play at Savage for Toledo, in front of so many people and amazing fans and still be part of that team.’”
UT head coach Tricia Cullop, who made Shafir part of her first recruiting class in 2008, said the program was behind Shafir regardless of what she chose.
“We would’ve supported her no matter what,” Cullop said. “She’s given an awful lot to our program and we’re very thankful.”
After finishing high school at Ulpanit Tiberias and solidifying herself as one of the top players in her age group on the international circuit, Shafir decided to pursue a basketball scholarship in the United States.
Cullop was among those who received a copy of the game tape Shafir sent to schools. Hired away from Evansville in April 2008, Cullop got a late jump on recruiting. When an incoming freshman point guard pulled out of Toledo, she and her staff were left scrambling to find someone else to run their offense. Shafir emerged as the leading contender to fill the void.
A devout Orthodox Jew, Shafir was intent on making certain the school she chose would allow her to further her education, play basketball and respect her religious observances.
“That’s one of the main reasons I came here,” Shafir said. “I know there are some things I have to do, and some things I’m not allowed to do, so I had to be at a school that would help me with that.”
Shafir has to eat kosher food, wear a T-shirt underneath her jersey and out of respect for the Shabbat — the sacred day of rest in Judaism — she cannot practice or ride in a motorized vehicle from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Her rabbi gave her permission to play on Saturdays and for road contests on Shabbat it was decided Shafir would travel with an assistant coach the day before and stay in a hotel within walking distance of the arena.
The extra effort on behalf of the Rockets staff has paid off in abundance. Garnering all-conference accolades, the floor general averaged a team-best in assists each of her first three complete season, leading the Rockets in scoring (15.3) her junior year in 2010-11 on her way to first-team honors.
The road back
The road back to center stage began slowly for Shafir, consisting of light leg stretches and testing range of motion prior to her knee surgery.
In the months following her surgery, the point guard began exercises to strengthen muscle groups in her legs, improving flexibility in her reconstructed knee.
Shafir spent most of her summer break rehabilitating with the help of former UT trainer Sara Meserth. The Rockets star continued redeveloping her range of motion and retraining her muscles with stretching, running and mobility exercises.
“Some days were good and some were really hard,” Shafir said. “But knowing I have a teammate, Andola Dortch, that went through it twice and could explain things helped me a lot.”
Dortch suffered a left ACL tear during a pickup game with her teammates in the summer of 2009. Weeks after the guard rehabilitated and was cleared to compete, Dortch participated in another offseason game, resulting in a right ACL tear.
“You know you’re getting better during rehab, but not actually seeing it going anywhere plays a trick on your mind,” Dortch said. “Having someone who’s been there really helps.”
While Dortch established herself as a leader on the floor, leading Toledo to its second-straight WNIT, Shafir continued growing from the sideline.
“She was still a great leader, giving a lot of energy from the bench and helping some of our younger players,” Cullop said. “I also think she was able to learn from seeing parts of the game that you don’t see when you’re on the court.”
Shafir said she was prepared to play by June, but was cautious and did not fully exert herself until the fall. She admits, however, that she was not in peak condition for the Rockets’ Nov. 9 season-opening win at Arkansas State.
“I was really excited for the first game, but it still takes time to come back,” Shafir explained. “Now I feel much better. I feel like I did before the injury.”
The fear of reinjury is a common psychological obstacle for athletes returning from major surgery, but such concerns have not inhibited Shafir’s high-energy playing style.
“Every once in a while you think about it, but as soon as the game starts you just think about the game,” Shafir said.
Save for surgical scars, the only remaining sign of Shafir’s injury is the precautionary brace on her knee during games and the ice pack on it afterward. She suspects the former will no longer be needed by the start of conference play in January.
Shafir’s scoring average (10.4 ppg) is down but her assists per game (5.3) are up from her junior season, a testament to both her heightened basketball IQ and a roster that is firing on all cylinders.
Off to its best start (8-1) since the 1996-97 season, the team has already won the John Ascuaga’s Nugget Classic and the Glass City Tournament. Shafir captured MVP honors in both and has the opportunity to lead Toledo to another pair of tournament crowns before the regular season ends.
Shafir stopped short of calling this the most talented Rockets team she has been on, but she understands her second chance at a final campaign with Toledo could result in a special run.
“It’s hard to compare, but I do feel like we have a really good team and we can do some great things this year,” Shafir said. “We have five people on the court that can score and do a lot of other good things, so I’m just trying to fit in and do what I need to do to help the team get where we want to go.”
Tags: Naama Shafir, Tricia Cullop, University of Toledo, Women’s National Invitation Tournament