IRONTON — A sign of a great basketball team is one that can find multiple ways to win throughout the course of the season — and makes said ways with the precision that makes one believe that said team has been in the very same scenario all season long.
With the Notre Dame Titans’ girls basketball program deeply enthralled in its closest battle of the season to date, J.D. McKenzie’s club, once again, found a way to deeply impress the crowd in attendance at Ironton High School as the Lady Titans overcame two early four-point deficits, stormed back with a 15-2 run in the second quarter of action to take the lead, and — despite eight, yes, eight three pointers from the Ironton Tigers’ girls basketball program — stayed true to its game by pounding the ball inside to their two low-post standouts.
Katie Dettwiller’s 24 points, a Tackett’s Body Shop Shootout record 16 rebounds, and four blocks, along with 11 points and eight rebounds from Lexi Smith and several key hustle plays from the Notre Dame backcourt, allowed the Lady Titans to pull through en route to taking home a 56-48 victory over Ironton on its own home floor as part of the annual shootout that’s held on the first weekend of February at Ironton High School on Saturday evening.
For McKenzie, the efforts of his group to pull out positive results over the last two games says a lot about what Notre Dame can do as it heads toward tournament time.
“These last two games are really going to help us get ready for the tournament,” McKenzie said. Ironton is very good, and we faced some adversity early on. We kind of got off to a slow start, and they came at us. They’re a very good basketball team that is battle tested. They’ve got a Division I player in (Lexie) Arden, and (Lexi) Wise is going to Glenville State, so they’ve got some players. We handled the pressure well today.”
After watching Ironton jump out to an early 7-2 lead to begin the affair, it was a familiar face who, once more, took control when her team needed her the most. Smith, who has been recuperating from an ankle injury in recent weeks after rolling said ankle in early January, came out firing by scoring six critical first-quarter points — all vital cogs in a 6-2 run that had the Lady Titans within a 9-8 tally after the opening quarter of action.
“Lexi got going early,” McKenzie said. “It’s nice to see her looking like herself again, playing basketball like she was before she rolled her ankle. She had a great game and was physical.”
However, while Smith’s production was certainly critical all on its own, Notre Dame made its biggest statement in the second quarter of play behind another familiar senior face. After watching Lexi Wise nail a deep three from the bench, Ali Smith proceeded to give Notre Dame a huge jolt off of the pine with her shooting in transition.
On two consecutive Lady Titan offensive possessions, Smith caught a pass from the right wing, and, without hesitation on either occasion, splashed a three from the exact same spot on both occasions to allow Notre Dame to take its first lead of the contest. The six-point swing ultimately proved to be the most critical of the affair as it kickstarted a run that ultimately allowed the Lady Titans to take a 23-14 advantage behind its 15-2 second-quarter spurt, before settling for a 23-19 halftime lead.
“I told Ali in the locker room, in front of the entire team after the game, that there weren’t two bigger shots tonight than those threes that she hit,” McKenzie said. “I thought that changed the momentum and the complexion of the game. I could’ve went to her more in the second half, but once we had gotten a lead and figured out what we were going to do offensively, and that we needed to run our high-low set and isolate our bigs down in the post, that’s what we went with. We weren’t looking to shoot outside anymore. Still, she hit the two biggest shots of the night, and she’s been doing it all year. She’s accepted her role and is a huge part as far as why we’re undefeated right now.”
While Ironton had little trouble keeping the margin close — coming to within three points on two separate occasions in the third quarter of action behind a trey from Arden and another long bomb from Schreck — Notre Dame never panicked and used its play on the interior to open up opportunities from deep. Dettwiller, who began to take over matters with her six second-half points and her shot alterations, mixed and matched her play with two treys — one each from Ava Hassel and Taylor Schmidt — to keep Notre Dame on the point as the Lady Titans ultimately extended its lead to five, 36-31, heading into the fourth quarter of play.
“Once they started trying to get the ball away from Lexi, then they had to deal with Katie,” McKenzie said. “It’s just a one-two punch. Katie’s height was hard for Ironton to handle, and Lexi’s strength was hard for them to handle. You mesh them together, and it’s a nightmare for most teams.”
And a nightmare was what Dettwiller proved to be in the fourth quarter of action. Whether it was an and-one finish through a bump, a putback off of a missed free throw attempt, or simply outmaneuvering Arden for the finish inside, the 6-4 junior proved to be a monster inside, notching exactly half of her 24 points in the final quarter.
“Katie had a great game,” McKenzie said. “Ironton didn’t have an answer for her. We were our own worst enemy sometimes. We rushed some things and kept telling guys, ‘The ball’s got to go inside. We’ve made some threes and stuff like that, but it’s crazy if the ball doesn’t go inside every possession.’ Once we started doing that, it was lights out. They made a run there on us, and we turned it over a couple of times, but we settled back down, took care of their press, got it in a halfcourt set, and got the ball back inside again.”
Still, Ironton wasn’t done putting a scare into the Lady Titans. Down 45-38 and facing extinction, Ironton went from extinction to having the momentum — briefly — as two Schreck treys cut the lead to a single point, 45-44, with less than 3:45 to play in the game. Schreck, on her own, equaled Notre Dame’s output to keep the Lady Tigers hanging around late.
“Threes kept Ironton in the game,” McKenzie said. “If we don’t give up some of those threes, we probably pull away from them a little bit if they’re not making them at the rate that they were. But we weren’t getting killed on penetration and we weren’t turning the ball over a ton or giving up transition points, so I’m happy. We did what we had to do.”
After drawing contact on the opposite end, Dettwiller hit the first of her two free throw attempts to put Notre Dame back ahead by a two-point margin. When the junior missed her second attempt, Smith fought through contain, gained inside position, and put together the last of four huge second-half putbacks that Notre Dame had as a team — Smith’s being the biggest of all — to give the Lady Titans a 48-44 lead with 3:14 to go in the contest.
“Those putbacks are huge,” McKenzie said. “That’s something that we talk about all of the time is not giving up second-chance opportunities, because those are backbreakers. It kills you. You get a defensive stop, and then they get a rebound and put it right back up for an easy basket. For us to get some of those and change the momentum of the game was huge. We did a good job crashing the boards tonight.”
While Wise answered not long after with a layup inside, Dettwiller’s play in the interior, along with Notre Dame’s defense, proved to be too much, as Dettwiller countered with another big basket on the right block while Molly Hoover followed with a huge steal and a breakaway layup that increased the Notre Dame advantage to 52-46 with 2:08 to play.
After battling to a stalemate for nearly two minutes, Ironton — who garnered a pair of free throws to close the gap again — had a chance to cut the advantage to two again. Wise, however, missed the front end of a one-and-one while Hassel, the young freshman sensation that has been so strong all season, nailed both of her attempts in the same situation to put Notre Dame up by six, 54-48, again with time winding down.
The Lady Titans, however, would make one more big play before capping things off. With time winding down, Ironton triple-teamed Schmidt, forcing the sophomore to turn the ball over to Wise. But as Wise went up for the layup, Ali Smith came sprinting from behind to knock the ball away and out of bounds before Wise could completely gather herself for the attempt.
“It’s not going to show up in the record book, but Ali made a huge play. I had her in there for offense, so she could shoot free throws if Ironton went to foul her, and she comes up with a huge defensive play. What do I know?” McKenzie said, laughing. “Just awesome. She came in, and you never know. Ironton makes a bucket there, it could lead to something more, so that could’ve been a game saving play right there. She hustled back.”
And the play proved to be all that Notre Dame needed. With 6.5 seconds left, Wise threw up a three-pointer that was well-contested by Hassel and fell right into the arms of Dettwiller, who was fouled. The junior, fittingly, finished the game off by making both free throws to put the exclamation point on the thrilling affair.
“We just tried to run them off of the three-point line,” McKenzie said. “We just said, ‘Hey, if they’re going to beat us, it’s going to be from two. It’s not going to be from three.’ Once we got the six-point lead there, I told them, ‘No more threes and no more fouls,’ and we didn’t. We executed the gameplan there at the end.”
With the victory, Notre Dame improved to 21-0 and sits just one game away from a perfect regular season roll. That 22-0 mark came become reality with a victory over Belpre — a makeup affair originally scheduled for Jan. 15 — next Saturday at 6 p.m.
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT