- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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BOWLING GREEN, Ohio -- Naama Shafir didn't know much English when she arrived in Toledo from her native Israel 4½ years ago. She knew even less about the peculiarities of a particular corner of Ohio that includes two Mid-American Conference basketball programs, her own University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University, half an hour south on Interstate 75.
A teammate at the time went over the schedule with the new arrival. She pointed out one game of note, then another to Shafir. Then came a pause as she reached Bowling Green's name.
"One of the first things I learn[ed] coming to Toledo was the BG game is a big game," Shafir explained.
Sunday's biggest game took place in Stanford, Calif., home to one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful campuses in the country. On hand for Cal's road win against rival Stanford to split the season series, Michelle Smith has the full details of Cal's biggest win in quite some time and Stanford's second loss in 15 days at Maples Pavlion.
But that wasn't Sunday's only memorable meeting between teams that play one or two nights a year and remember the score every other night. Amidst more humble, if quintessentially Midwestern, surroundings, Toledo beat Bowling Green 48-38 in a game far more entertaining than the final score suggested. A redshirt senior from Israel who wasn't about to lose what might be her last appearance in that big game led the Rockets with 23 points.
Ranked No. 27 in the first official RPI release and receiving votes in one of the major polls when the week began (in addition, pardon the plug, to sitting eighth in espnW's mid-major poll), Toledo came into Sunday's game on the heels of a loss at home against Central Michigan that will likely cost them dearly in those measures of national recognition. A potential 0-2 conference record after a 12-1 start to the season hung heavy over their heads, all the more considering Bowling Green was 60-5 at home in MAC play over the past eight-plus seasons prior to Sunday.
Shafir was supposed to be playing professionally by now, but an ACL injury last season delayed her departure. It also saved the Rockets on Sunday. In a game that was exactly as physical, without being dirty, as could be expected in an Ohio derby, Shafir hit long jumpers and short pull-ups, finished drives and sought contact to get to the free throw line.
Then, with less than two minutes to play, the shot clock about to expire, a defender in her face and her team ahead by just three points, she launched a 3-pointer that was long from the moment it left her hand. So long that it banked in for an insurmountable 40-34 lead. As Toledo coach Tricia Cullop said after the fact, sometimes you make your own luck.
"She presents composure on the floor, leadership, a player who can score and create her own shot -- someone who has great experience in games like this," Cullop said of the all-MAC staple who once scored 40 points against USC to clinch the WNIT title in 2011. "She's played in four of them. That senior leadership, and the ability to go get your own shot really helps you in a tight game when both teams have scouted the heck out of each other."
Most stories about Shafir get to her religion sooner or later. She is an Orthodox Jew, hence the shirt she wears under her jersey to conform to standards of modesty. That facet of her life sets her apart from just about everyone else in women's college basketball (for a detailed account, read here). But what mattered Sunday weren't her beliefs about the nature of God. It was the belief a team had in her on a basketball court.
"I play basketball because I like it, that's what I like to do, not because I like the story behind it," Shafir said. "That was never what was driving me to do it, no. My dream was always just to be able to still play basketball and practice my religion. At the same time, if I help other younger girls, kids, to give them some hope they can do it, I'm more than happy. But that wasn't originally my goal."
Her goal was to play in games like the one in Bowling Green on Sunday. Games that matter to a community.
"That's why I stayed," Shafir said. "That's why I'm here for my fifth year. I love the people, and I love being here."
She also starred
Megan Waytashek, South Dakota State: The Jackrabbits are regular visitors to this spot, but usually through the exploits of Ashley Eide. This time, it's Waytashek, who scored 30 points and added 11 rebounds in a 66-64 win against IPFW on Saturday, including an offensive rebound and putback with one second remaining. That after she hit a 3-pointer with 85 seconds left to cut her team's deficit from five points to one point. Waytashek also had a team-high 13 points in a win at Oakland earlier in the week. It's nice to see from a third-year player who came to South Dakota State as a top-100 recruit, but missed half of her first season and almost all of her second season with a knee injury.
How about a joint entry for Oklahoma's Aaryn Ellenberg and Joanna McFarland? Without Whitney Hand, the Sooners are 4-0 in the Big 12 after wins this week against TCU and Texas Tech. Ellenberg scored 26 points in each of the wins, while McFarland posted back-to-back double-doubles with 24 points and 11 rebounds against TCU and 14 points and 16 rebounds against Texas Tech. That makes three double-doubles in four conference games for the 6-foot-3 McFarland, who had just one (and reached double-digit points just once) in nonconference play.
Team of the week
Oklahoma State: One bad game can become a losing streak in a hurry when Baylor gets involved. Oklahoma State lost its Big 12 opener against Texas Tech, and then endured an 83-49 setback against Baylor last weekend.
With just 48 hours to bounce back before Tuesday's game against Kansas, that could easily have morphed into a three-game losing streak. Instead, sophomore Liz Donohoe stepped up in support of Toni Young and Tiffany Bias with 24 points in a win against the Jayhawks. Then, the Cowgirls went on the road Sunday to beat Texas (speaking of losses compounding losses) to get back to 2-2 in the Big 12.
Donohoe, Young and Bias are all averaging at least 34 minutes per game early in conference play, but it's a nucleus that showed some resolve this week.
Hail to the undefeated
Michigan is 3-0 in Big Ten play for the first time in the history of the program after a 54-43 win against Wisconsin on Sunday. That after Kim Barnes Arico became the first Michigan coach to start 2-0 in the league in her first season.
There is just not a wealth of women's basketball history in Ann Arbor.
What is present in abundance is optimism about the present and future of the Wolverines (14-2), mostly because it's difficult to talk to Barnes Arico without feeling optimistic and energized about something.
If Kevin Borseth departing Michigan to return to Green Bay after guiding the Wolverines to the NCAA tournament was the biggest surprise of last spring's coaching carousel, Barnes Arico leaving St. John's to replace Borseth was in the running for second place. A native of the New York area who grew up surrounded by the Big East, she built St. John's from an afterthought into a team that beat Connecticut in Gampel Pavilion last season and entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed, not to mention President Obama's pick to win it all.
Barnes Arico said she wasn't prophetic about the collapse of the Big East and left when she did only because she felt like she was going to a place where she could win a national championship. Although the two might be related.
"Just like in the back of my mind," Barnes Arico said of a nagging thought. "To be at a school that has the football and the tradition and just the pride that the University of Michigan has."
That school has a brand new basketball practice facility that should help seal the deal with any number of recruits of her own choosing, but it also had five returning seniors on the team she took over. Those players won 20 games last season, but they did it playing Borseth's style -- the style for which they were recruited as his first class.
"Maybe when I was younger, I wouldn't have come in and handled the change the way I did," Barnes Arico said. "I came into their program. They had established it, and they had gone to the NCAA tournament, and they had done things. I'm coming in to five seniors that have done things that haven't been done here before.
"If I came in and just started saying, 'Heck no, we're doing it this way,' there could have been a revolt."
She asked them to teach her about teams familiar to them but not to her. She asked them what they did well. St. John's took a total of 267 3-pointers in 34 games last season; Michigan's Kate Thompson would take 266 by herself in that many games at her current pace. St. John's assisted on 51 percent of its field goals last season; Michigan assists on 63 percent of its field goals this season.
What she added is the energy and defensive focus that has Michigan operating with a surplus of six rebounds per game, compared to a four-rebound deficit last season, and one of the conference's stingiest field goal defenses.
"I think we're much more aggressive defensively," senior Jenny Ryan said. "We really get into people. We don't just sit back and take punches. We're the ones that try to go out there and be the aggressor. For instance, on ball screens, we're not the type to just sit back and let you kind of do what you want with it. We'll attack them and try to blow up plays and really set our mark early by being physical. I think [being physical] has really changed us."
The results speak for themselves, although Barnes Arico's words carry weight, too.
"They know how to play the game," Barnes Arico said. "And they execute better than any team that I've coached."
You must be this tall to reach this milestone
Until this weekend, there was only one active player in Division I with career totals of at least 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. To the surprise of, well, no one, that player is Brittney Griner. But Griner, who methodically and almost quietly went about adding to her totals with 23 points against Iowa State and 33 points against Kansas, now has company. And coming up with Megan Herbert's name might stump a few more people. The Central Arkansas senior long ago passed the 1,000-rebound requirement (she's the active leader in Division I with almost 1,300 rebounds), and she reached 2,000 points in Saturday's win against Northwestern State. The kicker? Herbert is all of five feet, 11 inches.
Speaking of numbers
The week also offered two of the more difficult to duplicate stats we're likely to see this season. First came South Florida's Andrea Smith, who managed to hoist 69 shots in 74 minutes on the court against Notre Dame and DePaul. Smith entered the week averaging around 15 shots per game but took that to levels rarely seen outside of Grinnell box scores against the Fighting Irish and Blue Demons. She wasn't particularly accurate, connecting on just 24 of those attempts, but considering the Bulls pushed the Fighting Irish to overtime behind her 33 points, hats off to her all the same for some heavy lifting.
Equally eyebrow raising was Stony Brook's box score against Binghamton on Wednesday. In a 56-34 win, 13 Seawolves played double-digit minutes and not a single player registered more than 20 minutes. Not many teams have the healthy bodies, let alone the desire, to bend the minutes column quite like that.
Before next weekend
Ohio State at Purdue (Monday): Are we really looking at an 0-4 start in the Big Ten for Ohio State? If not, it's going to mean winning at Purdue, something no visitor has yet managed this season. The Boilermakers also haven't played since Jan. 5, leaving them well rested. Strange as it sounds, because Tayler Hill is clearly carrying the Buckeyes, the rest of the team is shooting 49.9 percent from the field. What they aren't doing is preventing offensive rebounds.
Louisville at Connecticut (Tuesday): Last time these teams met, Connecticut came away with a win on the road but it was edged on the boards and committed 22 turnovers in a tight game (it also held the Cardinals to 25 percent shooting, which helps explains the winning part). Huskies freshman Breanna Stewart didn't play against Marquette on Saturday because of an ankle injury. As the Connecticut Post reports, she and Bria Hartley are doubtful for Tuesday.
Fresno State at Wyoming (Wednesday): The only team currently 2-0 in the Mountain West, Fresno State could follow last week's impressive win at San Diego State with another notable road result. Wyoming lost its league opener at Boise State, but it is 7-0 at home this season. It helps to shoot 40 percent from the 3-point line around Chaundra Sewell, who is averaging a double-double.
Georgia at Arkansas (Thursday): Georgia scored 95 points in a victory at Alabama on Thursday and 42 points in a win against South Carolina on Sunday. At least the Bulldogs are versatile. This might not be a must-win for Arkansas, but after a 1-3 start in conference play in which the Razorbacks are shooting 32 percent from the field, it's mighty close for the middle of January.
BYU at Gonzaga (Thursday): It isn't for first place outright because Saint Mary's shares that spot with BYU, but the Cougars are quietly regaining momentum after a rough start to the season, winners of nine in a row since four losses in five games in November. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the success coincided with the return of 6-foot-7 Jennifer Hamson. In eight games this season, she's averaging 13.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game.
18dBonnie D. Ford