A trip to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament might not have been what the USC women’s basketball team wanted when the season began nearly six months ago.
But Saturday afternoon, the Women of Troy (24-13) found themselves playing for their first postseason title since the 1983-84 season.
The only team standing in their way was the Toledo Rockets.
In a closely contested battle, Toledo finally pulled away midway through the second half, boosted by a raucous home crowd and the play of guard Naama Shafir, as USC fell short of the title, 76-68.
“It was a great experience and we had a good run,” said senior center Kari LaPlante. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish it.”
Shafir scored a career-high 40 points, including 28 in the second half, to lead Toledo to its first postseason title in program history.
“She was hitting on all cylinders,” said junior guard Briana Gilbreath. “[Shafir] was just on … and she’s a very good player.”
USC led by as many as seven points in the early going in large part because of Gilbreath’s hot shooting from the field.
Gilbreath had 10 points during a three-and-a-half minute stretch early in the first half, including back-to-back three-pointers that gave the Women of Troy their largest lead at 16-9.
The Rockets, however, would come roaring back, going on a 9-0 run of their own to take the lead, at 18-16.
The lead changed six times in the first half, and Toledo eventually closed the first half on an 8-2 run to take a 35-32 lead into halftime.
Shafir had 12 points at halftime to lead the Rockets, but she was just getting started.
“When [Shafir] penetrated, it was hard to get out on their shooters,” LaPlante said. “We had to pick and choose what to do. We’d rather have her get twos than threes, and we picked our poison.”
Coming out of halftime, USC slowly inched back into the lead, going up 44-42 on a three-pointer by junior guard Ashley Corral with less than 13 minutes to play.
Shafir would go on to score Toledo’s next 12 points, however, to put the Rockets up 54-47 and ahead for good.
“Each team was going to make its run and we just had some difficulty making a run of our own,” LaPlante said. “It eventually came, but it came a little too late.”
USC faced its largest deficit at 67-53 with a little more than three minutes to play, but battled back to cut it to four points at 72-68 with about 20 seconds remaining.
“There were parts in the game where we didn’t play our game, and it hurt us,” Gilbreath said. “We made some mental lapses on offense and defense, and [Toledo] capitalized on them.”
But Shafir converted four free throws at the end to give her 40 for the game.
LaPlante finished with 10 points and eight rebounds, while Corral chipped in with 12 points off the bench.
Gilbreath and Corral were named to the WNIT All-Tournament Team for their strong performances in the tournament.
Aside from Shafir, forward Melissa Goodall was the only Toledo player to reach double figures with 12 points.
Despite the loss, LaPlante believes the team improved as a cohesive unit during this tournament run.
“We’ve grown a lot,” LaPlante said. “This tournament was really fun, we were a completely different team, and were playing a lot better and together.”
And with LaPlante and senior forward Michelle Franco as the only players graduating, the team has high hopes for next season.
“I’m proud of us getting this far, proud of the hard work we put in and I’m proud of the team whether we lost or not,” Gilbreath said. “But if we play like we did at the end of this season at the beginning of next season, we’ll be unstoppable.”