It can be a hard goal to shoot for, especially when past disappointment is there.
However, the Notre Dame Titans’ girls basketball program has proven to be exactly what their nickname — Titans — suggest.
A 24-0 record. A No. 3 overall ranking in the final Division IV Girls AP Basketball Poll of the season. And an astonishing 33 point scoring differential per contest.
Yes, this is exactly what Notre Dame has done during the course of the 2017-18 campaign — and it’s allowed the Lady Titans to make a return trip to the Division IV District Finals, this time in the Jackson II District side of the bracket.
Now, the question is, can Notre Dame go where few teams in our area have been before? According to J.D. McKenzie, that’s certainly a possibility — if the Lady Titans play at their very best.
“It’s exciting to be back at this stage,” McKenzie said. “This is our third straight time appearing in the district finals, and our fourth overall as a program. The last three times, we had to watch somebody else cut down the net and move on. It’s one of those things that we haven’t been able to accomplish yet, and it’s exciting to be back to have another shot at it. We’re hoping that we bring our ‘A’ game, and if we play one of our better games, we feel like we’ll have a good opportunity to move on.”
Throughout the course of the 2017-18 campaign, the Lady Titans have brought their ‘A’ game to the table much more often than when they haven’t.
Notre Dame holds six wins over teams in Division III or higher, and of its 24 contests to date, Notre Dame won by double-digits or more in 23 of them — with its closest margin of victory coming against an always stout, Doug Graham-led Ironton squad by a 56-48 margin in a contest that was technically a road affair instead of a neutral site game. The Lady Titans also swept New Boston — a Division IV District Final contender in the Jackson II Bracket — to win the conference outright.
Having four individuals — Katie Dettwiller, Lexi Smith, Ava Hassel, and Taylor Schmidt — who all average at least 8.8 points per game, and three additional individuals — Ali Smith, Clara Hash, and Molly Hoover — who average at least 2.5 points or more per contest certainly helps.
“When you start a tournament run, a big part of advancing is being able to handle the pressure and the intensity of each game,” McKenzie said. “Every team’s playing extremely hard, so you’ve got to bring the energy level, and our core group of seven or eight girls have stepped up and met the challenge every time they’ve been faced with something. We’ll be 25 games into the season, and will have a lot of experiences to look back on, so there’s a lot of things that we can draw from via past contests. We should be pretty prepared for the situations that we’re going to see.”
Notre Dame, however, has always brought the intensity necessary to close a game out on the defensive end. In addition to holding its opponents to a stellar 31.25 points per contest, the Lady Titans have averaged an astonishing 16.6 steals and 6.4 blocks per contest as a team.
However, this is, in large part, due to the core leadership that seemingly keeps churning out of the Notre Dame program like butter. Dettwiller, at 6-4, has created nightmares with her imposing physical presence and length, as evidenced by her 14.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 5.2 blocks per contest on a ridiculous 77 percent shooting, while Lexi Smith, at 6-0, has continued to translate her success on the volleyball floor to the basketball court and has obtained 14 points, nine rebounds, and two steals per contest despite having to recover from a sprained ankle suffered midway through the year.
The strong efforts, however, go far beyond the two bigs.
Hassel (10.2 points, four assists, 3.5 steals) and Schmidt (8.8 points, 3.8 steals) have added incredible quickness and a beyond-the-years poise to the backcourt on both ends, while Hoover (5.4 assists, three steals) has led the charge as the team’s main distributor and lockdown defender. Ali Smith adds a dynamite three-point shooting presence to round out the backcourt and Clara Hash’s energy, especially in Notre Dame’s 1-3-1 zone, allows the Lady Titans to exercise flexibility in the frontcourt if need be. Those qualities were all on display throughout the first three quarters of action, where Notre Dame jumped out to a 19-5 lead after the first frame and held Eastern Meigs to just 17 points through the opening three quarters of action.
“Our defense throughout the year, night-in and night-out, has been a strong point for us,” McKenzie said. “When you’re playing good defense, forcing turnovers, and forcing bad shots, it can help us get out in transition, which is one of our strong points. It gets us easy looks at the basket. To hold Eastern Meigs to 17 points through three quarters of action speaks for itself. Could we have done some things better? Absolutely. However, it’s hard to gripe a lot about holding a team that good to 17 points through three quarters.”
Peebles, however, is no slouch.
While Jacey Justice is the Lady Indians’ only double-figure scorer at 19.1 points per contest, Justice — who is shooting 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range — is not just a scorer. And Justice, who is averaging 4.1 rebounds, 3.3 steals, and 2.5 rebounds per bout — is followed by at least seven additional players who average between 3.4 and 7.9 points per contest, three of whom are shooting at least 39 percent or better from the floor.
“Peebles is an athletic team,” McKenzie said. “They’ve got some quickness, too. The one thing that stands out is how well they shoot jumpshots and shoot the three-pointer. They’ve got a couple of girls who can hit the three with regularity. They’re really no slouch in any part of the game. They’re solid in every area and in all facets of the game. With the way that they shoot the basketball, they’re never out of a game.”
The goal to limit the shooting barrage? Come out and guard with the same intensity that has been there all year long.
“It’s probably going to be their outside shooting against our inside presence,” McKenzie said. “Hopefully, our defensive pressure is something that will be able to keep them off-balance and allow us to contain their outside shooting. To do that, we need to pressure the ball, make it difficult to step into their shots and get into rhythm, and not allow them to get easy looks. We’re trying to not make anything easy for them. Hopefully, they’re not knocking down contested jump shots, and when they do shoot the basketball, hold them down to one possession, get the rebound, and move up the floor as fast as we can. We’ve done that all year long, and we don’t want to change what we’re doing. Hopefully, it’s difficult for Peebles to adapt to what we’re doing, and we can make it tough on them.”
And if the Lady Titans do that, Notre Dame will certainly have at worst, a fighter’s chance — and a pretty solid advantage at best.
”Now, we didn’t finish the game as strong as we would’ve liked to, and that’s something that we’ve got to look at,” McKenzie said. “We’ve got to finish that thing out and put together four strong quarters instead of three strong quarters, because we’re going to need four strong quarters in order to beat Peebles. We had a great start to the Eastern Meigs game on both sides of the floor, but we went a little bit cold. When that happens, your defensive effort is the one thing that you can count on. If you play hard and get about it, you’re going to be able to play great defense. The ball’s not always going to fall through the hoop in the way that you want it to, and shots aren’t always going to go in, but man, you can always show up to play defense.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT