MURFRESBORO, Tenn. — It was a glimpse into the present and future of Lady Raider basketball. On January 9, 2022, a Saturday game against North Texas was moved to Sunday thanks to a snowstorm that rolled through the middle of the state which Middle Tennessee won 80-52. Dor Sarrethe present, led MT with 23 points. Courtney Blakelythe future, was second on the team that day with 18 points off the bench.
A reporter calls on Blakely to take advantage of an opportunity to play more minutes as some teammates run out of time, the rookie has focused on his defensive production. Her main mentor wasn’t going to let her get away with this.
“Let me correct her,” Saar said, removing her teammate’s microphone, turning to face her as she spoke. “It’s not just in defence, it’s also in attack. I don’t know if you know that, but you have a spark, just your energy, having you on the pitch really helps us.”
Blakely, gently, thanked his graduate transfer teammate for the compliments. It was one of the many moments Lady Raider fans saw of Israel-native Ma’anit’s leadership during her year at Murfreesboro following an All-Conference career at the University of Maine. Not only orchestrating the MT offense on the field, but helping a young group of guards learn the toughness and speed needed to succeed at this level.
“We are very lucky,” said the head coach Rick Insell noted. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have a better portal recruit. She came in right away with leadership on the floor and off the floor. Intense, I don’t know there’s a word there that you can’t use for sound.”
Saar was one of the top guards at European U18, U16 and U14 level before starting his college career, catching the eye of scouts and coaches based in the United States. She won several tournament MVP awards as a member of the Israeli national team, but knew that to achieve her goals of playing professionally, her best path was to come to the United States to play in the NCAA.
Maine seemed like a good choice for several reasons. The Black Bears were perennial conference title contenders in the American East, giving Saar a chance to make an impact on a big stage. But they also gave Saar the opportunity to play early and often in first year, which Saar said was invaluable to her development as a player.
“The most important thing for me is that from the first year I was able to play and become a leader,” said Saar. “So I think I’ve really developed my leadership game in my four years there.”
Saarland has started all but five of the 117 games she has played for Maine, earning American East honors every season, first making the All-Freshman team in 2018 (besides to be the conference’s rookie of the year), then making the third All-Conference team as a sophomore, second-team all-conference as a junior, and first-team all-conference as a senior, finishing his career averaging 9.1 points, 4.3 assists and 1.3 steals. While helping Maine earn two NCAA Tournament berths and an appearance in all four American East title games while in Orono, Me.
She is the only Black Bear to finish her career with at least 1,000 points and 500 assists, while holding the program record for three-pointers made (235) and second on the school’s assists list (507). ). So when Saar decided to use his extra year of eligibility on another program and enter the transfer portal after the 2021 season, interest came from across the county.
“We had played in a tournament at Fordham a few years ago and had seen her play there,” Insell said. “We were very impressed. We kind of followed her career, just looking at her stats. (So) when she entered the portal for that fifth year, we immediately worked hard to sign her.”
Saar had many suitors, including the most recent national champion, Stanford, but Saar said Middle Tennessee stood out for her because of her style of play, heavy on ball screens, coming out in transition and shooting a lot of threes.
Basically everything Saar does best: navigating the pick and roll, popping out screens for open shots, starting the fast break.
“I was very specific about what I wanted,” Saar said. “The Coach Insell system suits me best.”
She’s been exactly as advertised for the Lady Raiders this season, starting all 27 games MT played before her senior night on Saturday, averaging 11.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. She’s often the one the team tries to win the ball back in one-shot situations, as she executed perfectly earlier this season late in the first quarter against Marshall.
“She’s a threat wherever she is,” Insell said. “She’s a threat late in the game. She’s a threat from the three-point line. She’s a threat with the assist. When she gets off the floor, she’s looking to shake things up, and there’s very few players like that..
“The moment you throw the ball, she doesn’t look at herself worrying about dribbling the ball, she has eyes that scan the ground to see where the weakness is.”
Saar still has that professional basketball dream, and with a plethora of clubs both in her native Israel and across Europe, she will have plenty of opportunities once the season is over in Murfreesboro. She will first have to perform her compulsory military service in the Israel Defense Forces, a requirement for all Israeli citizens. She hopes to continue playing while on duty, however, setting up that Eurobasket future.
But perhaps Saar’s greatest legacy, beyond the chance to bring MT to the NCAA Tournament in Frisco next week, will be the young guards she’s mentored since she’s been here. Insell knew he needed more guards coming in this year, even with talented freshmen Jalynn Gregory, Courtney Blakely and Gracie Dodgen enter the fold. He said producing and mentoring Saar has been a “win-win situation” for the Lady Raiders.
For Blakely, as she said at the January press conference, Saar can be intense in her assist.
“This girl jumps out at me and she’s like, ‘If you don’t pull yourself together, you’re gonna need some help,'” Blakely said with a smile. “She always says to practice the little things.”
Saar, for her part, relished being able to help her teammates. And she knows they have the ability to help this team succeed in the playoffs this year.
“One of my roles here, as I see it, is to be their mentor,” Saar said. “Just use my experience to help explain things. And I just loved it, because I can see their potential.”