No. 3 Division IV unit in the state vs. the No. 1 Division IV unit in the state.
Two great coaches. A litany of outstanding players.
Only one winner.
Yes, Thursday evening’s Division IV, Region 15 Semifinal contest in Jackson between the Notre Dame Titans’ girls basketball program and the Waterford Wildcats’ girls basketball program will be a dandy, no doubt — because it’s a go-or-go-home contest against two of the best girls basketball programs one could hope to find.
However, it’s also going to be a dandy because it’s a matchup that J.D. McKenzie and company expect to compete in — and possibly win — if the Lady Titans play at their optimum level.
“The girls are really excited to have a chance to play at this level and to get a chance to play against Waterford,” McKenzie said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to go out there and show everybody that we deserve to be there and deserve to be in the conversation with Waterford at the same time.”
Over its entire body of work, however, Notre Dame has proven that it belongs in the conversation with the battle-tested Waterford squad — and it’s all started on the defensive end of the floor. The Lady Titans have given up 40 points or less in 20 of their 25 contests this season, and have won an astounding 24 of their 25 contests by double-digits thanks to a unit that has accumulated 15.8 steals and 6.2 blocks per contest.
Thursday’s game, however, will provide the biggest test that Notre Dame has seen yet, especially with the three-headed monster that is Alli Kern, Megan Ball, and Rachael Adams.
Kern, who has started all 111 games of her high school career to this point, is averaging 15 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest, while Ball is averaging 14.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists for the Lady ‘Cats. Both players, who are long, athletic, can play inside or outside, create their own shots and — best of all — run the floor en route to suiting all of those skills, are perfect compliments to Adams, who is averaging 9.5 points per contest as a knockdown shooter from the outside. Hannah Duff, Hayley Duff, and Morgan Lang also bring excellent intangibles to the table for Waterford, who has won 24 straight since losing its season-opener to Class AAA Parkersburg (W. Va.).
“I feel like we’re a pretty good defensive unit as a whole,” McKenzie said. “We have been playing well defensively, and that’s going to have to carry over to this game. Much like we’ve talked about with most games that we’ve played this year, we’re going to have to make it difficult for Waterford and really limit their easy baskets in transition or second-chance opportunities on the offensive glass. We’re going to have to do a good job closing out on (Alli) Kern and (Megan) Ball, and their sharpshooting guard (Rachael Adams), and just do what we do and try to make it difficult on them. Hopefully, we get easier opportunities than we give up, and hopefully, our defense can get us out in transition, where we can establish an advantage in numbers.”
Notre Dame, however, is pretty darn stout offensively, as well. Katie Dettwiller’s 14.9 points and 9.7 rebounds on a 77 percent shooting mark proves that in spades, but so does Lexi Smith’s 14.2 points and nine rebounds on 58 percent shooting and the 10.1 and 8.6 points per game tallies that Ava Hassel and Taylor Schmidt have supplied on 40 percent shooting. Molly Hoover’s 5.4 assists per contest have set the table for the previously mentioned quartet to excel, while Clara Hash and Ali Smith have provided sparks at different times on both ends of the floor for the Lady Titans throughout the season.
So it comes as no surprise that McKenzie — who has run an effective inside-out offense throughout the year — doesn’t plan to change what the team is going to do leading up to, and during, the game itself.
“We’re not going to change much at all,” McKenzie said. “You’re 26 games into the season, and I don’t feel like in Game 26, I need to say, ‘Okay, everything we’ve done this year, let’s scrap it and let’s do something different.’ We have to be who we are and play the style of basketball that we have played to this point, because that’s what got us here. When we can get out in transition offensively, we’re going to. We expect to see a lot of full-court pressure from Waterford, which could make it difficult for us to get into our sets, so we’re going to have to run some pressure releases and make a couple of adjustments throughout the game in order to make sure that we’re getting shots off and not turning the basketball over.”
This strategy, according to McKenzie, includes, as all Notre Dame followers have come to know, pounding the post relentlessly on the offensive side of the floor.
“We’re going to have to be patient offensively, but we feel like in the halfcourt sets, we definitely have the advantage in size in the post with Katie and Lexi, and we want to try to exploit that,” McKenzie said. “We know that Waterford will try to do different things in order to take that away, whether it comes down to double teams or sending an extra helpside defender.”
However, to open up the paint for their effective low-post technicians, McKenzie knows that the play on the perimeter will have to be strong. Notre Dame has only connected on four threes during its last two affairs, a mark that will likely have to increase if the Lady Titans want to free up space to effectively operate from the perimeter and from the post.
“We haven’t shot well from outside over the last two games, but hopefully, we’re knocking down some threes (against Waterford),” McKenzie said. “If Waterford’s packing it in down low and really trying to control the interior, we’re going to have to knock down some shots from outside, and I feel very confident in Ali’s, Ava’s, and Taylor’s abilities to do that. On the opposite side, they’re a very good outside shooting team, so hopefully, we can pressure them out on the perimeter and prevent them from hitting as many shots as they have shown that they are capable of hitting.”
But on paper, and in reality, this matchup is one that will come down to who executes the so-called “little things” in the best manner.
“I feel like it’s a pretty even matchup,” McKenzie said. “Whichever team takes care of the basketball better and controls the glass will have a good chance to win it.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT