NEW BOSTON — It’s always great to watch a sporting event where young adolescents and teenagers are representing the very best that their schools have to offer.
However, even for their enhanced standards, the girls basketball programs inside the New Boston and Notre Dame umbrellas proved to be incredibly impressive on Thursday evening with their fire, competitiveness, and execution on both ends of the floor.
Despite falling by 30 points in its initial meeting against the Lady Titans back on Dec. 18, the Lady Tigers gave Notre Dame a serious run for its money, especially over the first three quarters of action as an SOC I Championship-deciding matchup between the pair proved to be a battle of wills throughout the 32-minute affair.
However, as the game went on, Ava Hassel’s will and incredible basketball ability proved to be the deciding factor.
Hassel’s 22 second-half points, along with Taylor Schmidt’s 12 first-quarter tallies, were critical as Notre Dame ultimately established a double-digit advantage at the end of the third quarter of action and kept it hovering around that area for the remainder of the contest in a 70-56 victory over New Boston on Thursday evening inside the halls of Glenwood High School as Notre Dame won its fourth consecutive SOC I title and its sixth over the last seven seasons.
For J.D. McKenzie, it was a team effort through and through, especially considering how well-prepared New Boston was for the SOC I Championship-deciding affair.
“Taylor kept us in the game in the first half, and Ava, in the second half, put the game away for us,” McKenzie said. “They’re just two special players. Everybody contributed a lot in all of the little things. Ava and Taylor will stick out for their points, but a lot of big things happened in addition to their ability to put the ball in the basket. We needed a game like this. We haven’t been in a tight game in the second half all year, and it’s good for us to go through that.”
As for Kayla Wiley, the veteran head coach knows that they Lady Tigers did all they could to stop Hassel, Schmidt, and the rest of the Notre Dame crowd — but the execution by McKenzie’s club proved to be too much in the end.
“They came out on fire just driving,” Wiley said. “They had some really good moves. I thought that we couldn’t defend the moves any better, and they just found a way to finish. (Taylor Schmidt and Ava Hassel) are great young athletes. Bri Humble and Peyton Helphenstine did a great job of limiting their low-post production and keeping them off of the offensive glass, and I thought that both teams played great offense tonight. On our end, it was turnovers. Some of it was self-inflicted, but some of it was great defense on their part.”
The excellent defense, however, wasn’t limited to one side of the ball. Over the first three minutes of the affair, both units proceeded to hold each other completely scoreless behind the gritty play of both units.
When New Boston’s Mariah Buckley fought her way inside for the game’s opening bucket with 4:51 to go in the quarter, which proved to be an and-one as the senior point guard fought through contact on the right block, the Lady Tigers continued their excellent defensive play as Notre Dame went an additional minute without scoring thanks to excellent low post defense from Humble, Helphenstine, and Ali Hamilton, who held the Lady Titans’ star low-post duo of Katie Dettwiller and Lexi Smith without a point in the opening quarter of play. The duo finished with 13 points combined for the game as New Boston continued to do an excellent job of performing in its man-to-man sets and fronting the pair in the low post en route to denying the pair the basketball.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Bri,” Wiley said of Humble, who had the tough task of guarding Dettwiller. “She played great in this game and against South Point, where she stepped up with some big minutes with us down 24 points at halftime. She really helped us out. She was the star player tonight for us. She really helped us out, limited Katie, and kept her off of the boards. I’m super proud of her.”
But as all great teams do, they find ways to counterattack. Taylor Schmidt, a sophomore off-guard who has improved throughout the course of the season, proved to be tremendous on Thursday evening. Schmidt nailed a floater in the middle of the lane, canned two consecutive treys, and drove inside for a second layup to ultimately score the game’s next 10 points. When New Boston answered with a 7-0 run — sparked by a Kaylee Stone trey — to tie the score at 10 apiece, Schmidt ultimately was able to get ahead of the crowd again by taking a pass off of a Molly Hoover steal and finishing to give Notre Dame the lead back, 12-10, after a quarter of play. Schmidt ultimately finished with 18 points and four steals on 6-of-9 shooting from the floor.
“We always say, ‘Whatever the opponent is doing defensively, there’s a counter for it,’” McKenzie said. “Taylor saw the counter, and that was to reject the screen and go drive, and she did that. Early on in the game, we just looked discombobulated offensively. I called a timeout and said, ‘Guys, you just don’t look like you know what you’re doing.’ Really, we thought that we were going to see zone all night tonight, so it surprised us when they came out in man. They did a good job with it. They were well prepared and gave us some fits early on. We had to get back to what we do, and that was letting our defensive play turn into offense by cranking things up defensively, causing some turnovers, and getting out in transition.”
In the second quarter of play, Notre Dame came out firing once more as the Lady Titans, aided by an and-one finish from Lexi Smith on the right block and an excellent find from Schmidt to Ali Smith, allowed Notre Dame to go on a 10-2 run en route to taking a 22-12 lead in the second quarter of action. Once again, however, a huge three by Stone proved to break the ice for New Boston as the senior used her second of four treys to go on a 7-2 run that cut the Lady Titans’ lead to 24-19. When Notre Dame answered with an 8-1 run behind critical low post buckets from Clara Hash and Dettwiller, New Boston responded with a 7-0 run — capped off from a three from Lexus Oiler — to trim the lead to a 32-27 count by the halftime break.
“Kaylee was hot from the outside,” Wiley said of Stone’s cold-blooded shooting from deep. “She couldn’t miss.”
“If New Boston won, they’d get a share of the SOC I title, and we’re not big on sharing,” McKenzie said. “I told the girls, ‘14-0 sounds a lot better than 13-1, and it means as much to us as it does to them. Don’t let them play harder than us.’ I give New Boston a lot of credit. They came to our place, and we put it on them pretty good, but they came out tonight and didn’t let that affect them. They’re a good ballclub with a lot of good players, and girls that can score.”
In the second half of action, New Boston continued to keep the game tight as Helphinstine — who scored a team-high 17 points — put together an eight-point third quarter as the Lady Tigers cut the Notre Dame lead to 34-33 on a 6-2 spurt.
“Peyton was driving the ball inside and drawing fouls,” Wiley said. “She got some quick buckets for us and opened it up for Kaylee to hit the outside shot.”
However, Smith and Dettwiller countered with nifty low-post buckets to extend the lead back out to a 38-34 gap.
Then, Hassel got going.
After draining an open trey from the right wing to get herself in an offensive rhythm, the 5-4 freshman guard really got going by knocking away a pass and running all the way to the end line near the home side of the bleachers to chase the ball down.
When Hassel gathered up the steal, the freshman alertly found Hash with a bullet pass wide-open on the opposite block to allow Notre Dame to open up its advantage to a 43-34 lead in a flash. The off-guard then scored eight additional points to fend off several strong New Boston plays — including two critical runout layups in the closing seconds of the quarter off of steals by Hoover and Schmidt — to allow the Lady Titans to take a 53-41 lead at the end of the third quarter of action, and added a second three-ball to begin the fourth quarter to stretch Notre Dame’s lead to its largest of the contest at 15 points. Hassel ultimately finished with a game-high 27 points in arguably her best performance of the season — which is saying a lot considering how strong the freshman has been all year long.
“Ava’s points are going to stick out, but she really did a great job defensively at the top of our 1-3-1 and caused havoc,” McKenzie said. “She forced some turnovers early just picking pockets. She can just flat play, and with her only being a freshman, she’s only going to get better and better. She really stepped up tonight. She just doesn’t look like a freshman out there playing. She stepped up big for us tonight and put us on her back offensively when we needed her to. I couldn’t be prouder of her.”
Even with Hassel’s play, however, the play of Hash and Ali Smith off of the bench proved to be huge. The pair not only outscored New Boston’s entire bench on their own (9-5), but also were huge defensively, with Hash’s energy at the back of the 1-3-1 zone allowing the Lady Titans to go on what ended up being a game-deciding 15-5 third-quarter spurt.
“Ali and Clara did a great job coming off of the bench for us,” McKenzie said. “They have all year. Ali’s always good for at least one big three, especially in these big games. The energy that Clara and Ali are both bringing to our team off of the bench is excellent. When we were running our 1-3-1 in the second half, I put Clara in just for that because she is so full of energy, especially on that defensive set. We went on an 8-0 run with her in there at one point, and it just sparked us. Our 1-3-1 was the turning point in the game because it allowed us to cause turnovers and get out in transition.”
After New Boston cut the lead to a 59-51 margin in the fourth quarter of action behind two additional treys from Stone — who finished with 16 points — Smith and Hassel fought back by scoring the next five points, with the latter creatively finishing an and-one opportunity, to put Notre Dame up by a 64-51 tally. But when turnovers began victimizing Notre Dame late, New Boston, once again, cut the lead to an eight-point margin, 64-56, behind an Ali Hamilton layup.
However, as the Lady Tigers tried to make their push, Dettwiller proved to be too much of a force to overcome defensively. The 6-4 junior, who faced 3-on-1 disadvantages at times late in the fourth quarter, overcame those numbers with her length and used said length to change or alter shots. Dettwiller ultimately finished with 10 blocks, 10 rebounds, and six points as Notre Dame proceeded to ride its defense to the win over the final two minutes.
“You can’t coach that height and her ability to erase shots,” McKenzie said of Dettwiller. “She covers up a lot of the defensive mistakes that we make, and that’s a reason why we can be so aggressive on that end of the floor, because we know that we’ve got Katie there on the back end to change and block shots. She didn’t light it up scoring tonight, but she did a heck of a job blocking and changing shots and getting rebounds. Lexi did a good job on the glass, and they scored when they had their opportunities.”
With the victory, Notre Dame — the No. 7-overall unit in the Division IV ranks — improved its record to 20-0 and, for the third consecutive season, went a perfect 14-0 in SOC I action. The Lady Titans have, incredibly, won their last 49 SOC I conference games, with their last loss coming to Eastern on Jan. 5, 2015 — thanks to an incredible senior class that is as hardworking as they are intelligent. Two games — this Saturday against Ironton in the Tackett’s Body Shop Classic and next Saturday against Belpre in a makeup contest — are all that stand between the Lady Titans and a perfect regular season.
“We had Senior Night (on Saturday evening against Mowrystown Whiteoak) and I hate to lose them because they are so special,” McKenzie said of Molly Hoover, Ali Smith, and Lexi Smith. “They have done so much. They’ve won four SOC I Championships and haven’t lost a conference game since January of their freshman year in conference play. That’s huge for them. I’m pretty proud of them.”
Even with the loss, New Boston — who gave Notre Dame its second-closest bout of the year in the 14-point loss — continued to show the vast strides that it has made since the first half of the year. The Lady Tigers, who finished the SOC I portion of its schedule with a 12-2 mark, have a road bout at Oak Hill on Monday and will follow that up with a home bout against Rock Hill next Saturday.
“We’re definitely improving,” Wiley said. “I can tell you that the girls have that drive to improve. It’s nice that I don’t have to figure out who’s coming to practice. They’re always there, they’re ready to practice, for the most part, and I never have any problems out of that. They’re always willing to listen, learn, and are always trying to ask questions. I love this school, I love this team, I love these girls, and I’m glad that I have the opportunity to coach them.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT