JACKSON — Over the past five years, J.D. McKenzie has experienced his fair share of trials and tribulations inside Jackson High School.
And with a tough Peebles Indians’ girls basketball program awaiting it coming into a Division IV, Jackson II District Championship bout, McKenzie knew that his Notre Dame Lady Titans were going to have to show patience in their sets, be able to pound the ball inside, and play committed basketball, both in transition and in half-court sets, for all 32 minutes of the title bout.
On Thursday evening, McKenzie’s ballclub checked off each of the boxes during the Division IV, Jackson II District Final bout and never let up, as 16 first-half points for Katie Dettwiller — who finished with 21 points for the contest — and 17 points from Lexi Smith — who became just the second player in school history after Jen Arnzen to eclipse 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds for a career by grabbing her 1,000th board in the third quarter, along with strong backcourt efforts from Ava Hassel and Taylor Schmidt among others, allowed Notre Dame to jump out to a 10-0 lead to open up the contest as the Lady Titans never looked back en route to a dominating 53-29 victory over Peebles — while clearing a hurdle that had long beset the program.
“It’s huge for us,” McKenzie said of the victory. “I thought that defensively, we put together a great effort tonight, and offensively, we were more patient, able to get off to that 10-0 start, and set the tone for the rest of the game. That sparked us and gave us confidence the rest of the way. We were just more consistent, more patient, took care of the basketball better, didn’t make mistakes with it, and it showed on the scoreboard.”
From the outset, Notre Dame wasted no time taking complete control as the Lady Titans hit the glass with authority during the first quarter of action.
Between Dettwiller and Smith alone, Notre Dame obtained eight second-chance points in the opening frame as the Lady Titans sprinted out to the aforementioned 10-0 advantage. When Mckinlee Ryan finally got Peebles on the board with a pair of free throws with 3:56 to play in the first, Smith answered with her own rebound and putback, and the Lady Titans followed that sequence up by holding Peebles scoreless for another 2:05 until Jacey Justice’s baseline jumper sailed through the hoop with 1:51 to play. A crafty layup by Hassel, along with the fourth and final rebound and putback of the quarter by the 6-4 Dettwiller, allowed Notre Dame to take a 16-4 first-quarter advantage.
“We knew that we definitely had a size advantage inside,” McKenzie said. “We wanted Lexi and Katie to play a little bit stronger, tougher, and meaner than they did against Eastern Meigs. We talked to them about that and told them that they needed to be a little bit more physical and to not let Peebles push you around. I thought that they did a lot better job of that tonight and imposed their will, especially as the game went on. They were huge tonight. They combined for 38 points, controlled the glass, controlled the paint area, and for the most part, Katie did a good job guarding a good shooter out on the perimeter, and Lexi was in the paint controlling the glass most of the time. Those two were tough today.”
While Peebles ultimately cut the gap to a 20-12 margin toward the 5:30 mark of the first half behind the play of Baylee Justice and Ryan — who canned one trey apiece in the second quarter of action, Notre Dame continued to make life difficult for the Lady Indians after that. Over the last five and a half minutes of the first half, a pair of free throws by Ryan were all Peebles had to show for itself as Notre Dame, behind another pair of Dettwiller baskets and a second crafty layup by Hassel on the right block, retained its 12-point advantage (26-14) at the halftime break.
“They had 14 points there in the first half, and of those, six of those points came off of two three-pointers that were missed assignments,” McKenzie said. “The rest of the points that they had were basically free throws, and we held them to seven made baskets over the entire game. I can’t complain much about our defense. We absolutely got after it. As a unit, everybody was solid defensively. Everybody gave maximum effort tonight.”
That maximum effort was especially evident in the form of Schmidt, who proceeded to give Justice fits out on the perimeter.
Justice, who came into Thursday’s affair leading all comers in the contest in points per game (19.7) and leading all guards with a 50 percent mark from the floor in addition to her 4.1 rebounds, 3.3 steals, and 2.5 assists per game, was limited to just four points in the opening half of action behind the on-ball defense that the 5-4 sophomore off-guard displayed on the evening.
Justice ultimately finished with a team-high 14 points, but it took 10 third-quarter points from the freshman to keep the Lady Indians within 13 (37-24) of Notre Dame at the end of the third quarter of action, and when the off-guard hit a three-pointer to cut Notre Dame’s lead to a 34-22 count, it was Schmidt who responded on the ensuing Lady Titans’ possession with a three of her own from the right wing to fend off the late quarter push from Peebles.
“Taylor did a phenomenal job on (Jaycee Justice),” McKenzie said. “She guarded her most of the night. I knew that Jaycee was going to score. What we wanted to do is try to make it difficult for her to do so, and we did that. That was the story. Peebles didn’t score many easy buckets, and when you’re scoring a higher ratio of easier buckets than your opponent, there’s a good chance that you’re going to win. We did that tonight.”
In the final quarter of action, Smith — who obtained 1,000 rebounds midway through the third quarter of play — proceeded to finish the game off for Notre Dame.
After Dettwiller opened up the fourth quarter with yet another putback and finish, Smith used her strength and agility to score eight points in the opening frame, which spearheaded a monstrous 14-1 push to put the contest well out of reach. The physicality that the low-post duo and reserve Clara Hash brought to the table, along with the play that Hassel, Schmidt, Molly Hoover, and Ali Smith provided up top, rendered it difficult for Peebles to even get so much as a shot off in the final quarter as the Lady Titans ultimately stretched the lead to a 51-25 margin before coasting home. Isabel Cassidy added a steal and a layup for good measure to set the final score.
“They had one basket there in the fourth quarter there, and the rest were free throws, so that was a nice job on the defensive end by our girls,” McKenzie said. “We wore them down physically pressing them the whole night, and I thought that we were the better-conditioned team, especially at the end of the game.”
And part of that tone was set by the standout multi-sport athlete who has been nothing short of remarkable throughout her senior year.
“It speaks volumes about a person when they consistently average 250 points and 250 rebounds in a season,” McKenzie said. “You don’t do that by mistake or accident. It comes from hard work and being coachable. That’s what Lexi is. She’s worked her tail off in all of the sports that she competes in. The girl could probably go play college basketball, and she’s going to play volleyball (at Wheeling Jesuit). She could probably play two sports in college. She’s just been a big part of our success over the last four years. To be the second to go 1,000-1,000 in school history is big. She should be proud of that accomplishment, because I’m proud of her.”
With the win, Notre Dame (25-0) will go toe-to-toe with Waterford (24-1) in what is expected to be a dandy of a matchup in the Division IV, Region 15 Semifinals on Thursday, March 8 at 7 p.m. in Jackson. The winner will advance to play in the Division IV, Region 15 Finals on Saturday, March 10 at 7:30 p.m. on the campus of Pickerington North High School in Pickerington.
And make no mistake about it, the Lady ‘Cats are going to be a tough out, especially with Megan Ball, Alli Kern, and Rachael Adams present on the roster.
“I have a very strong love-hate relationship with Waterford, because that’s another team that we’ve never been able to knock out of the tournament,” McKenzie said. “They’ve knocked us off quite a few times. I have a lot of respect for their program, though. They’re awesome, and year-in and year-out, they’re one of the top teams in Ohio. It’s going to be fun to prepare for them and go play this game next Thursday. Our girls are going to be excited.”
However, with the type of heart and talent that Notre Dame has in its arsenal, it would be in one’s best interest to not count the Lady Titans out of any contest from here on in.
“I hope that it’s an absolute dogfight,” McKenzie said. “I hope that it comes down to the very end.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT