Staying undefeated. Exacting revenge on a team that knocked you out of the playoffs. Getting a key member of your team above the 1,000-point plateau. And, in addition to all of that, taking, and holding, a lead against that very team that took away your chances of winning an OHSAA Division IV District Championship over an entire 32-minute span.
If those qualities don’t tell you how special this Notre Dame Lady Titans’ girls basketball program can be at the end of the year, then you’re missing the boat.
Notre Dame’s Lexi Smith scored 17 points to become the fourth player in J.D. McKenzie’s tenure to eclipse the 1,000-point barrier for her career, the Lady Titans’ Ava Hassel added a splendid 11-point second-half effort en route to adding 17 points of her own, and Notre Dame led at all stops en route to taking home a strong 59-44 victory over a powerful Reedsville Eastern program to move to 10-0 on the year in a gritty, hard-fought bout between two Division IV Southeast District girls basketball powers.
The truly scary part about Saturday evening’s victory, however, was the fact that Notre Dame didn’t execute at its highest level.
“Like we talked about in the locker room, it’s a 15-point win, and we’re calling it an ugly win because there’s so much that we could’ve done better,” McKenzie said. “The effort and energy was all there from the start. The girls played hard all night. Katie (Dettwiller) got into some early foul trouble, and Ali (Smith) and Clara (Hash) came in off of the bench again and did a great job for us, and the girls continued to play unselfish basketball as they have all year.”
While the rematch of last season’s 58-53 double-overtime loss to the Eagles was certainly fresh on the minds of many inside the Notre Dame High School walls, the more pressing issue, at least early on, was getting Smith an opportunity to get over the official hump.
Fittingly, the Lady Titans were able to do so at their normal breakneck pace, as the 6-0 senior forward scored on a low-post bucket less than two minutes in to become the fourth Notre Dame player in a six-season span to reach the mark. In another fitting manner, Smith actually paced the team in scoring in the quarter, with seven tallies, as the Lady Titans sprinted out to an 18-11 advantage after a quarter of play. The three-sport standout ultimately finished with a gargantuan 17-point, 15-rebound, four-steal effort while shooting an impressive 55 percent from the field through it all.
“I was ready from the beginning, because I knew that I only needed one point,” Smith said. “It was really exciting. Everyone was congratulating me and giving me hugs, and that really means a lot. I didn’t get this by myself. You can’t go one-on-five and get 1,000 points. It’s a team effort even though it may look like a more individualized accomplishment.”
“Lexi’s a tremendous leader,” McKenzie said. “She’s not like a rah-rah girl, but she’s getting more like that as she gets older. She just leads by example, and when she makes mistakes, she takes credit for them. She wants to win. I’m sure it’s exciting for her to score 1,000 points, but I know she wants to win more. The thing about all four of the girls that have scored 1,000 points or more under me (Jen Arnzen, Brooke Pierron, Hagen Schaefer, and Lexi) is that man, they cared more about winning than anything. First thing that Lexi said in the locker room was, ‘If it wasn’t for you guys, I wouldn’t have done it.’ It speaks volumes about the type of person that she is. I’m excited for her.”
However, Smith’s focus, appropriately, has been on the season — so much so, in fact, that the senior didn’t know that she was about to hit 1,000 points until late in a Thursday evening victory over Green, when Smith had to intentionally miss a free throw so the accomplishment could be done at home.
“I thought that I might be able to score 1,000 (points) this year, but I didn’t know where I was at. In our last game (against Green), I was getting ready to shoot a free throw after finishing through contact, and (McKenzie) was like, ‘Don’t make this,’” Smith said, putting extra emphasis on the word don’t while describing the scene. I said, ‘Why?’ I really didn’t know what to do. But I listened to him. I missed it, and he said that I had one point left until I hit the 1,000-point mark, and he wanted me to get it at home.”
“I did have to tell Lexi to miss a free throw,” McKenzie said. “I may never have to do that again, unless a similar situation arises, but her parents (Joe and Lisa) and I knew that free throw was it.”
In the second quarter of action, Notre Dame faced more difficulty as Eastern Meigs’ excellent ability to front Smith and Katie Dettwiller in the low post, along with the Lady Eagles’ ability to get out in transition on runouts, allowed Eastern Meigs to go on a 7-2 sprint as the Lady Eagles cut the Notre Dame lead to a two-point gap (18-16) halfway through the second quarter.
But behind the poise of Smith, along with fellow senior Ali Smith and junior Clara Hash, who obtained further minutes when fellow starting big Katie Dettwiller went to the bench with foul trouble, the Lady Titans went on a strong 9-1 push that ultimately allowed Notre Dame to close the half with a 27-21 halftime advantage.
“Defensively, we had to make an adjustment at halftime because Eastern Meigs was leaking out on us,” McKenzie said. “So we ended up sending two guards back instead of one (to stop the runouts). We talked to the girls at halftime and said, ‘They’ve probably scored 10 points on easy buckets for them. You take those 10 points away, it’s a 20-point ballgame. We made that adjustment, and offensively, we tried to be more patient.”
And ultimately, that patience, along with a splendid show from two of its brightest young stars, allowed Notre Dame to win out.
From the moment that the pair came out of the locker room, the play of Ava Hassel and Taylor Schmidt proved to be too much for Eastern Meigs to handle.
Behind their deadly first steps, the duo were able to combine for each of Notre Dame’s first nine points in the quarter as the Lady Titans ultimately stretched their lead to a 10-point margin with 4:24 to play in the third quarter. The margin would never shrink below double-digits the rest of the way, with Hassel scoring 12 of her 17 points in the second half of action. The duo were also pests defensively, obtaining nine of Notre Dame’s 16 steals on their own.
“Ava, Taylor, Molly (Hoover), and Ali (Smith) see ballhandlers and defenders like they’re a $2 steak,” McKenzie said. “All night long, they just keep coming at you.”
In the final quarter, Eastern Meigs hung around for as long as it could as the Lady Eagles kept the margin hovering around 10 with less than four minutes to play in the contest. However, Dettwiller — who, even in limited time, collected 11 rebounds, eight points, and seven blocks — answered by dominating both ends of the floor. Even Eastern Meigs’ lone attempt to foul Dettwiller didn’t work as the junior nailed both of her free throws with 2:53 remaining in the affair to seal the deal.
“It’s so refreshing, as a coach, to have a bunch of unselfish girls out there,” McKenzie said. “We’ve probably had four or five different leading scorers this year, and four different girls can score 20. It just depends on who has the hot hand that night. The balance is huge, because it is so hard to defend. Eastern had some success with the zone there for about a quarter, and once we became more patient, we started settling down, got some better looks, and got going.”
With the victory, Notre Dame was able to improve to 10-0 overall while forcing Eastern Meigs to settle for a 5-3 start before the Christmas and New Year’s Holidays. The Lady Titans will resume action on Thursday, Jan. 4 when Notre Dame plays host to Western to start the 2018 portion of SOC I action.
“We’re excited where we’re at, we’re excited where we think we can go, and we’re excited about how much better we can be,” McKenzie said. “We don’t ever mention the record or wins and losses. When we’re in the locker room, we’re just talking about our next opponent. We’re going to come in next week, watch game film of what we did tonight, and see how we can get better. We’ll start practicing Thursday for our game against Western, and take things one game at a time. That’s all you can do.”
“There’s things that we can definitely improve on in order to make us a lot better than we already are,” Smith said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how far we can go this year. The goal is certainly to do better than we’ve ever done.”