MCDERMOTT — When a unit is as talented as Notre Dame is, a sizeable run can come and go before even knowing what hit a single unit.
And despite a great effort from the Valley Indians’ girls basketball program, the Lady Titans of Notre Dame proved to be too much as J.D. McKenzie’s club moved to 23-0 on the year and earned yet another berth to the Division IV District Tournament realm as another outstanding effort from Lexi Smith and a blistering 21-0 third-quarter spurt carried Notre Dame to a 57-27 victory over Valley on Thursday evening in a Division IV Sectional Final at Northwest High School.
However, the result, as evidenced by a slight 27-18 halftime lead for the Lady Titans, still hung in the balance until Notre Dame, behind a challenge from J.D. McKenzie at the intermission, began to take over matters over the last 16 minutes of action.
“In the first half, our energy and our intensity defensively wasn’t there,” McKenzie said. “We talked about that at halftime and I challenged them a little bit.
As for Mark Merritt, his Lady Indians, despite their intense effort, simply did not have the firepower to keep up with Notre Dame’s talented and experienced roster.
“You’ve got a starter out, a sixth man out, and their depth was just too much for us,” Merritt said. “We stayed with them a little bit in the first half, but our Achilles heel has been our turnovers all year, and even when were down by just nine in the first half, we turned the ball over 15 times. Notre Dame’s a good team. Can’t take anything away from them. I’m proud of the girls for sticking with them for one half. We’ve just got to get better, work on our individual skills over the summer, and come back ready to play. We wish nothing but the best to Notre Dame.”
In the opening quarter of action, Notre Dame immediately jumped out to a 14-2 lead behind the play of Lexi Smith, who scored eight of her 22 points during the game-opening run that ultimately lasted five minutes and eight seconds. Ava Hassel’s game-opening trey and a three off of the pine by Ali Smith allowed the Lady Titans to establish a commanding lead early on as Smith’s production and physical presence — which also resulted in 10 rebounds, four steals, and a block in addition to the 22-point output (7-of-9 shooting from the field) — opened up the floor.
“Lexi stepped up and had a great game,” McKenzie said. “She was very physical, she rebounded well, and she finished well. Over the last two games, she’s been playing like the Lexi of old, which is good to see this time of year.”
However, behind the play of Chalee Hettinger and Bre Call, Valley was able to slowly, but surely, scrap its way back into the contest in the second quarter.
After trimming the defeat to a 15-7 first-quarter margin behind the former’s five points, the latter came up big by scoring four consecutive points following a 5-0 Notre Dame run, and Valley, behind a pair of free throws from Hannah Conley, along with baskets from Kaity Howard and Karsyn Conaway, allowed the Lady Indians to cut the Notre Dame lead to single digits, 27-18, at halftime by forcing the vast majority of Notre Dame’s 21 turnovers during the second quarter of action.
Noticing that Valley was obtaining its fair share of points through its transition play off of the turnovers, McKenzie made sure that his point got across in a clear manner to his players before the second half began.
“I just told them, ‘They’re playing harder than you are, and if you don’t come out and give the intensity and energy level that we normally give on the defensive end, you’re going to be in a dogfight tonight,’” McKenzie said. “I just challenged them to come out in the third quarter, play harder than they were, go after every loose ball, get traps, get steals, and play like we have for most of the year. They forced our pace a little bit in the first half, and I said, ‘We have to be the aggressors and we have to force the pace of the game.’”
And in the third quarter of action, that’s exactly what Notre Dame did.
With star post player Katie Dettwiller back in the lineup after being saddled with three fouls in the opening half, Notre Dame’s defense proved to be too much for Valley’s young lineup to overcome as the Lady Titans took off on a 21-0 run.
Dettwiller combined with Smith for 10 points down low in the quarter and Taylor Schmidt added all six of her points in the frame, including an off-balance runner with 1.2 seconds left, to cap off the frame with Notre Dame holding a 48-18 advantage as 23 steals from the Lady Titans — including eight alone from Ava Hassel, four by Taylor Schmidt, and three from Molly Hoover, rounded out the effort. Hassel added five assists to just two turnovers for the contest as the Lady Titans took full control.
“Tempo’s huge for us,” McKenzie said. “We want to play fast. I believe that our conditioning in the second half has led us to pull away from teams and has allowed our defense, tempo, and pace to affect teams even more. When we get steals, tips, kick the ball down the court, and score before the opponent can get back in a defensive set, that’s high-percentage looks that you’re accumulating, and you’re going to always have a fighting chance at worst. We’ve got to force that tempo. That’s huge for us.”
“We came out in the third quarter and drew a blank,” Merritt said. “We worked on their press and we knew that it was going to be relentless in that third quarter, so we tried to prep the girls for that. I just believe we were plum worn out, and you’ve got to give Notre Dame a lot of credit for that. The only thing that we can do is regroup, come out next year, and try to get better.”
Still, Valley, who finished the season at 7-16 overall, has plenty of bright spots to look forward to as the Lady Indians look ahead to 2018-19. Bre Call, Karsyn Conaway, and Chalee Hettinger, who led Valley in scoring on Wednesday with eight and five points apiece, respectively, all return, as does Hannah Conley, who was an All-Southeast District selection last year. That same core group also only loses two seniors from a unit that also returns Bailee Day and Kaity Howard among others.
“We’ve had a tough schedule all year,” Merritt said. “We’ve been in some close games, and in some of them, we weren’t mentally strong. We’ve let up a little bit and got really blown away. We’ve got to get better on our individual skills, we’ve got to hit open jump shots, we’ve got to move with our head up, and we’ve got to be able to look down the floor. All of those things are great things for us to work on this summer, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
With the victory, Notre Dame will advance to the Division IV, Jackson II District Semifinals, which will be played on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 12 p.m. at Jackson High School. There, the Lady Titans will face Eastern Meigs — a 54-42 winner over South Webster on Thursday evening. The Lady Titans, who fell by a 58-53 count in double overtime to the Lady Eagles in last year’s Division IV, Jackson I District Semifinal, will look to make revenge twice as nice after defeating Reedsville Eastern 59-44 back on Dec. 23.
“I have a love-hate relationship with Jackson,” McKenzie said. “We’ve won some games there, but we’ve also lost a bunch of games there. Whether we play Eastern Meigs or South Webster, we’ll have to get in the flow early, work on what we’re going to play, and do the things that we need to do in order to emerge with the win. Once you get to this point, it’s anybody’s ballgame. We’ll have to come out with a better effort than we did during the first half tonight to continue to advance.”
As for Valley, the Lady Indians will bid their farewells to two senior strongholds in Billie Jennice and Maddie Wright. Both players finished their careers as four-year lettermen for Valley, with Wright playing a key role in the starting lineup before a knee injury against Green ended her high school career one game early.
“Billie and Maddie have been with us for four years,” Merritt said. “They’ve been great role players, role models, and leaders. We’re going to miss them both.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT