Strickland saves Lady Titans’ day


PICKERINGTON — In one fell swoop, and with one shot, Katie Strickland —single-handedly you can argue —got Notre Dame High School to cancel classes for Friday.

But bigger than that, much bigger to be blunt, Strickland’s stickback sent the Notre Dame Lady Titans to the Elite Eight of Division IV —and back to the brink of school history.

That’s because the six-foot-tall and junior Strickland — indeed in the right place and at the right time on Thursday night — secured an offensive rebound off Ella Kirby’s partially deflected three-pointer, took a safe step-and-a-half, reversed a layup, and scored the tie-breaking buzzer-beating basket for an epic Lady Titans’ triumph.

That’s correct, Strickland was Notre Dame’s hero —as the Lady Titans topped the Fisher Catholic Lady Irish 46-44 in a hard-fought Division IV Region 15 semifinal at Pickerington North High School.

For the second time in history, Notre Dame’s girls basketball program plays for a regional championship —with the other just three years ago against Fort Frye.

That was after its last of three consecutive district championships (2018, 2019 and 2020), as this season’s Southeast District title is only the program’s fourth all-time.

These Lady Titans are now a stellar 24-2, and once again are on the University of Dayton’s doorstep —trying to punch a coveted state tournament ticket.

They have that chance now on Saturday night —and against one of the most storied girls programs in the state in Hiland.

Tipoff time at Pickerington North is set for 7 p.m.

Hiland had its way with South Gallia in Thursday’s first semifinal at Pickerington —winning 54-33.

Meanwhile, the done 21-6 — and like junior-laden — Lady Irish erased a 42-32 deficit in a matter of the final four-and-a-half minutes, and forced the game’s fifth and final tie at 44-44 with 20 seconds remaining.

But as it is with March Madness officially upon us, Strickland saved the Lady Titans’ day —and month and year.

On Notre Dame’s final possession with a dozen seconds left, six-foot and one-inch senior Annie Dettwiller drove the right side of the lane —and connected with Kirby in the corner for an open three-point attempt.

But an Irish defender deflected, at least partially, Kirby’s shot —but Strickland was waiting right there on the opposite block for a board.

Strickland secured an inside position, corralled the carom, made her under-and-upwards move, and the ball dropped in as the buzzer sounded.

Her Lady Titans’ teammates mobbed Strickland in celebration — as she, Dettwiller, and other Lady Titans truly turned emotional in a matter of split seconds.

But those were tears of joy —from players and coaches and Notre Dame fans alike.

Strickland spoke of exactly what happened.

“I did,” she said, of immediately crying after the shot went in. “I knew I was in at the end to get an offensive rebound if we needed to. I saw Ella’s shot was deflected and when I went to grab it, I was behind the backboard, almost on the baseline. I needed to get the ball in front of the backboard. But I just shot it, and I kept looking and looking, and it went in. It felt like it was up there for an hour. Emotion just come over me like relief, that we were moving on and we survived.”

Indeed, the ball took its good old time toying with the rim, but it finally dropped —much to the delight of 13-year NDHS head coach J.D. McKenzie.

McKenzie, incidentally, doubles as the Notre Dame High School building principal —and makes the call calling off school.

But bigger picture, of course, is that Notre Dame’s dream season stays alive.

McKenzie mentioned “just the highs and lows of that game”, but in 13 seasons, he had never been part of a winning buzzer-beating finish —until Thursday night.

“We blew a 10-point lead in a matter of seconds and just didn’t make good decisions at times. But we played hard and didn’t stop. We wrote ‘32 minutes’ on the board, and we went out and needed all 32 minutes and every last second of it. Katie came up with a big rebound and found a way to put it back in,” said the coach. “I just couldn’t be happier for the girls. They (games) are not all going to be pretty and they are not all going to be perfect, but we’re still playing.”

Even the last possession had its imperfections, but there were perfections with it —none bigger than Strickland’s basket.

“What we drew up was a basic four-flat. Get the ball into Annie, set a ball screen with Katie, let Annie go downhill, she either is going to look for the roller Gracie (Ashley) pinning down or we’re going to kick it to Ella. Ella got a good look, then the next thing I saw Katie got it and it went in,” said McKenzie. “Something simple, but I don’t like drawing up stuff that we haven’t practiced. But we’ve always had that simple four-flat in. Put it in your best player’s (Dettwiller) hands, let her get downhill, they had six fouls, so we thought worst-case scenario they foul her on her way to the basket and Annie makes the free throws.”

Speaking of freebies, Notre Dame needed the nine it made out of 10 tries —as the Lady Irish were 7-of-9.

Both squads shot at least 41-percent from the field (Notre Dame 41.5-percent and Fisher Catholic 41-percent), and 48-percent from inside the arc (Notre Dame 14-of-29 and Fisher Catholic 11-of-23), as the Lady Titans tolled the taller Lady Irish 11-4 on the offensive boards.

Notre Dame actually outrebounded the Lady Irish 28-16, led by Strickland and Gracie Ashley at eight apiece, as Ashley was the game’s high scorer — with 17 points on five field goals and 7-of-8 free throws.

“Gracie’s effort, every night, you know what you’re going to get, which is probably a double-double,” said McKenzie. “Super body control for a post player, she can catch the ball in awkward positions and still score. Just a great job defensively too. Gracie is probably 5-10, but she is down there on the block battling with them and pushing on them. She has a great attitude, positive all the time, brings it every day in practice. Without her, we wouldn’t be here.”

Ashley, Dettwiller (12 points on five field goals 2-of-2 free throws) and Strickland (eight points on four field goals) were giving up some size —to 6-2 senior Averie Bruce and 6-2 junior Ellie Bruce.

Notre Dame senior Annie Dettwiller (11) drives the lane on Fisher Catholic’s Ava Albert (14) and Voni Bethel (1) during Thursday night’s Division IV regional semifinal girls basketball game at Pickerington North High School.

Paul Boggs | Daily Times

“It (offensive rebounding) was an emphasis. The two Bruce girls are big, and usually, we’re the biggest team on the floor,” said McKenzie. “But we did get second-chance opportunities and for the most part, limited Fisher to second-chance opportunities. That’s one thing we talked about. Score in transition, then limit Fisher’s second-chance opportunities.”

But the Lady Titans, twice in fact, left the door ajar —once after scoring a dozen unanswered for a 12-4 first-half lead, and then in the second half after outscoring Fisher Catholic 22-12 over the opening 12-and-a-half minutes.

In fact, Fisher failed to score for exactly five full minutes in that first quarter.

But 10 unanswered by the Lady Irish, including a pair of Voni Bethel’s four threes, tied it at 42-42 —before Dettwiller broke a two-and-a-half minute Notre Dame drought to make it 44-42 with two minutes to go.

The Lady Irish then fouled the Lady Titans four times in a span of five seconds at the 50-second mark, then Ava Albert stole an inbounds pass with 40 seconds left —before Averie Bruce drew a two-shot foul and converted both for the 44-44 tie.

That set up the final Notre Dame possession, as Dettwiller drove the bus on that one —starting with Kirby’s attempt at her fourth three-point make.

In fact, all three of the Lady Titans’ trifectas were courtesy of Kirby, as Bethel bagged a second-half four for 12 points — and Albert added one in the second.

Ellie Bruce bucketed 14 points on six field goals and 2-of-3 free throws, while Averie Bruce —in her final game —went for 12 on four field goals and 4-of-4 foul shots.

Two days before New Year’s Day, the visiting Lady Irish amassed a 17-7 first-quarter lead on Notre Dame, but the Lady Titans truly turned the tide —and eventually won 59-43.

McKenzie said FCHS, coached by Ben Bethel, has greatly improved since then —but so have his Lady Titans.

“Fisher has improved a lot since we played them in December, but I think we’ve gotten better too. Two really good teams going at it tonight,” he said. “We had stretches where we had them down, and did well defensively, then offensively we would miss easy layups. But we found a way to get it done.”

Truth be told, the Lady Titans’ thoughts for the Region 15 semifinals were originally on another Central District unit —previously-undefeated Berne Union, which defeated Notre Dame 38-31 exactly a month ago.

Notre Dame senior Kamryn Bradford (10) looks to drive on Fisher Catholic’s Ava Albert (14) during Thursday night’s Division IV regional semifinal girls basketball game at Pickerington North High School.

Paul Boggs | Daily Times

But Mount Gilead shocked the Lady Rockets in the district semifinals, before Fisher Catholic captured that Central District final —for this particular regional rematch.

Now, Notre Dame faces the tradition-rich Lady Hawks —after Strickland saved the season, and got Friday’s classes canceled.

“I cherish the opportunity to be able play against them, especially to get to the state. It’s going to take a very good game for us,” said McKenzie. “We have to finish shots, we can’t turn the ball over and we have to be physical.”

Strickland says it can, in fact, be done.

“It feels great that we’re going to be part of school history again,” she said. “I’m just super excited to be part of us continuing making that history.”

* * *

Notre Dame 14 6 13 13 — 46

Fisher Catholic 7 10 10 17 —44

NOTRE DAME 46 (24-2)

Ella Kirby 3 0-0 9, Kamryn Bradford 0 0-0 0, Annie Dettwiller 5 2-2 12, Annabelle Ball 0 0-0 0, Gracie Ashley 5 7-8 17, Katie Strickland 4 0-0 8; TOTALS 17 9-10 46; Three-point goals: 3 (Ella Kirby 3)


Sydney Ellis 0 0-0 0, Voni Bethel 4 0-0 12, Vanessa Funk 0 0-0 0, Jayda Dixon 0 0-0 0, Ava Albert 2 1-2 6, Ellie Bruce 6 2-3 14, Averie Bruce 4 4-4 12; TOTALS 16 7-9 44; Three-point goals: 5 (Voni Bethel 4 and Ava Albert 1)

Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2023 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved

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