JACKSON — When a unit’s offense isn’t performing up to its optimum level, it’s always nice to have a group of athletes who will make sure that the opposing team’s offensive unit doesn’t have the opportunity to take full advantage.
On Saturday afternoon, the Notre Dame Titans’ girls basketball program did exactly that as Notre Dame held the Reedsville Eastern Eagles’ girls basketball program to just 17 points through the first three quarters of action en route to backing up the Titans’ offense — who sputtered to 25 points over the final three quarters of play after scoring 19 in the opening frame — with a big effort as Notre Dame took home a 44-32 victory over Eastern Meigs in a Division IV District Semifinal bout at Jackson High School.
For J.D. McKenzie, the dedication that Notre Dame showed on the defensive end throughout all four quarters of Saturday’s contest was what arguably allowed the Titans to remain perfect at 24-0 — and take down the very opponent that had eliminated Notre Dame from the postseason in two of the last three seasons in the process.
“Defensively, we played really well besides some transition ‘D’ problems that we had,” McKenzie said. “We gave (Eastern Meigs) some fits and made it hard for them to score on that end of the floor. Offensively, we had a great first quarter, and then we hit a roadblock. We couldn’t make shots. Nothing fell. We turned the ball over a little bit too much. We slowed down a little bit offensively because of the way the scoring went in the fourth quarter. We just tried to take care of the basketball and let the game run out, but we didn’t finish well enough. We’ve got to get better.”
In the first quarter of play, however, Notre Dame could do no wrong on either end of the floor throughout the first eight minutes of action. Taylor Schmidt immediately got the ball rolling with a three from the left corner, and after a Lexi Smith basket increased the Lady Titans’ advantage to a 5-0 count early on, Ali Smith sprayed a three-ball from the right side of the floor to answer a pair of Alyson Bailey free throws and put Notre Dame by an 8-2 count early on.
However, the game-opening barrage hadn’t even reached its climax yet.
With 4:01 to play in the first quarter, Ava Hassel got going as the freshman passed the ball out to Lexi Smith on the left wing, then cut inside as Smith found the quick-as-a-cat guard for a layup, and Molly Hoover, like Hassel, used her quickness to get into the lane as the senior took advantage of a mismatch between herself and 6-2 post player Elizabeth Collins — who was matched up on Hoover — by going to the rack for a pair of floaters. Hassel then capped off the quarter in style by nailing a SportsCenter highlight-reel acrobatic layup through contact, while switching hands, to post an and-one. The result, you ask? A 19-5 first-quarter lead for Notre Dame.
“They came out, and they had their big post player (Elizabeth Collins) guarding Molly,” McKenzie said. “Molly did a great job in the matchup, and scored four points in that opening quarter. Her doing that changed the complexion of the game, because they had to adjust their gameplan due to Molly looking to score. We hit some big threes, our defense was great, we got some steals, and we got out in transition and finished. That quarter looked like us.”
However, while Schmidt nailed a second-quarter opening trey to keep the lead at 14, 22-8, after a quarter-opening trey by Madison Williams, Notre Dame, as quickly as they got hot, suddenly went ice cold from the floor. The Lady Titans hit seven field goals in the opening quarter of play but only 10 over the remaining quarters thereafter as Notre Dame went 17-of-48 (35 percent) from the field and just 4-of-19 (21 percent) from three-point range.
“From the second quarter on, we still played well defensively, but offensively, (Eastern Meigs) was packing it in, and we weren’t patient,” McKenzie said. “We started missing shots, and there were some questionable decisions at times. I told the girls, ‘We have to be pleased with the win. It’s better than losing, for sure, but let’s not be happy with what we’ve accomplished here. Let’s get to work and clean up our mistakes next week. We’re lucky that we will have another week to prepare and fix things.’”
But a truly great team is one that always finds a way to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. Notre Dame did just that in the form of Katie Dettwiller, who absolutely dominated at the center of the Lady Titans’ defense. The 6-4 junior never let a 1-of-3 effort from the floor affect her on the opposite end as the center collected 10 rebounds, two steals, and, most impressively, blocked an astounding nine shots — with five of them coming in the second quarter alone. Those totals allowed Notre Dame to actually extend its 14-point advantage to 16, 28-12, by the halftime break.
“Katie didn’t have a big offensive night, but she was big defensively blocking and altering shots as well as deflecting passes,” McKenzie said. “She just helps us so much to where we can be aggressive with our guards, and know that we’ve got some help behind us. That allows us to take some chances as far as trying to create deflections and coming up with steals are concerned. Even though she didn’t have a big night offensively, she still impacted the game greatly, especially on the defensive side of the court. When you know that you are affecting the game, even when you’re not scoring when they’re double-teaming you and paying so much attention to you, that opened it up for other things that we can do. We just didn’t execute. We’ll have to look at that and say, ‘Hey, we could run into this. This is how we need to attack it so we can do it better than we did the first time.’”
As Dettwiller continued to dominate with her play on the defensive end of the floor, Hassel was able to use her game-changing quickness to further cement Notre Dame’s standing on the point.
In one single possession at the beginning of the third quarter, the 5-4 freshman stole the basketball, moved up the right side of the floor, performed a filthy behind-the-back hesitation move, and found Hoover all in one sequence to give Notre Dame a 30-12 advantage to start.
When Eastern Meigs cut the gap to 15 points, Hassel responded by knocking down a three from the right corner and added another layup in transition as part of an 8-2 spurt by the Lady Titans to end the quarter. The off-guard ultimately scored seven of her 12 points in the third frame of action as Notre Dame took a 38-17 lead by the quarter’s end, and added eight rebounds, four assists, and three steals to go along with the 12 points for the contest.
However, the finish of the affair proved to be a bit sketchy for the Lady Titans. Lexi Smith proved to be huge by answering an early 7-0 fourth-quarter run by the Lady Eagles with four straight points (en route to finishing with nine points and 14 rebounds for the affair), but Eastern ultimately cut the gap to as low as 11 points behind six fourth quarter points from Bailey, who finished with a game-high eight points, as Notre Dame was stymied by turnovers and missed opportunities within the offense. Still, even though the Lady Titans were outscored by a 15-6 count in the fourth quarter of action, Notre Dame still posted a 12-point win — a true testament to Notre Dame’s defense, which recorded 13 steals and 10 blocks in all.
“Sometimes, when you come out on fire from the outside, that’s what you lean on,” McKenzie said. “It was awesome to see us shooting the basketball so well in the first quarter, but once that stops, you’ve got to reevaluate what you’re doing, and do what we’ve done in the 23 games prior, which is to set good ball screens, perform the pick and roll in a strong manner, get the ball to our bigs, attack the basket, and not rely primarily on the three-point jumper. It’s just not something that we’ve done all year, and we did that today. We’ve got great three-point shooters, but sometimes, you go cold and you have to score in other ways.”
Still, revenge, any way you can get it in the sporting realm, is quite sweet — especially for a team that not only has the tradition of Eastern Meigs, but the tradition of pulling out tight affairs. The Lady Eagles defeated the Lady Titans in 2015 (52-43 in one overtime in the Division IV, Jackson I District Semifinals) and in 2017 (58-53 in double overtime in the Division IV, Jackson I District Finals) before Notre Dame pulled out Saturday’s gritty affair.
“Eastern Meigs is a great team, and they play hard,” McKenzie said. “They play the whole four quarters. For us to finally beat them in the tournament — knocking out someone that has beaten us once in overtime and once in double overtime — and finally get over that hump has to be rewarding for the girls. It does make it a little more special. Wish we would’ve played better and all that, but we’ll take it.”
With the victory, the unblemished Lady Titans will face Peebles, a 54-33 victor over Federal Hocking, in the Division IV, Jackson II District Finals. Peebles defeated Western by a 60-41 count back on Feb. 17 to begin its tournament run and hold a 17-6 overall mark for the year.
“We were able to scrimmage both of them before the season, so we know a little bit about Federal Hocking and Peebles,” McKenzie said before the contest between the Lady Lancers and Lady Indians. “We have a little bit of film on both of them, and they’re young, quick teams. Against both teams, we’re going to have an advantage from a size standpoint in the low post. Hopefully, we’re able to execute in that area during this next round and keep our defense playing in the manner that it has been playing while operating more efficiently from an offensive standpoint by getting open looks, being more patient, and getting the shot that we want each time, not just settling for a look.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT