JACKSON — In any setback in life, it’s always important to show heart, regardless of what the end result may turn out to be.
Over its first 25 games, the Notre Dame Titans’ girls basketball program showed plenty of that heart en route to putting itself on the map across the region, and the state, among its fellow competitors.
And while their 26th affair didn’t end in the manner that they had hoped, Notre Dame arguably showed as much heart, if not more, than they had in any of their previous 25 matchups.
After battling Waterford to a 2-2 deadlock early on, an unfortunate turn of events from an Ava Hassel injury ultimately allowed Waterford to break a 6-6 tie en route to a 28-5 spurt that gave the Lady ‘Cats a 34-11 advantage in a Division III, Region 15 Semifinal.
However, Notre Dame, ever the fighters, never considered quitting one single time.
With their season on the line, the Lady Titans, without their 5-4 freshman and dynamo combo guard, rallied with a valiant 13-0 run that put some of the best qualities that Notre Dame had to offer on display as the Lady Titans cut the 23-point deficit all the way down to just 10, 34-24, with 5:56 to play in the contest.
However, Waterford’s five threes — including two daggers by Rachael Adams and Megan Ball that allowed the Lady ‘Cats to answer with a 10-2 run — proved to be all Waterford needed as Notre Dame saw its historic season come to a close with a 49-30 loss to the Lady ‘Cats.
Defeat, however, didn’t bring J.D. McKenzie to shame. In fact, it’s arguable that the second half deficit — the first time that Notre Dame had even trailed in a second half all year — brought out, in a further light, the qualities that have made the Lady Titans, and all Notre Dame program, in general, so incredibly fun to watch in the realm of sports.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my girls tonight,” McKenzie said. “They fought the whole entire night and fought through some adversity, and I just couldn’t be more proud of them. I told them all in the locker room that over the entire year, the second half was probably the proudest I’ve been of them this year because they didn’t give up. They kept fighting and showed so much heart. If a shot here or there goes our way or if a shot here or there doesn’t go their way, we’re cutting that thing to single digits, and at that point, you never know what can happen.”
Unfortunately, the ball didn’t bounce Notre Dame’s way, both literally and figuratively, from the opening tip.
After driving inside and scoring on a layup from the right block to supply the first points of the affair with 5:33 to play in the opening quarter, it was clear that Hassel was, once again, ready for the big stage.
But three possessions later, her night would be unfortunately be slowed. With 4:16 to play in the first quarter, Hassel drove the lane and came down awkwardly on her right leg, holding her knee as her shot glanced off the rim and was rebounded by the Lady ‘Cats. The injury, unfortunately, forced Hassel, with the exception of about a minute in the second quarter — where the freshman tried to give it a go but left with the injury just proving to be too much to ride out after falling on the court and leaving again — to miss the rest of the contest.
“It stinks gameplan-wise because we were going to use Ava a little bit differently tonight,” McKenzie said. “We were going to run her at the point a little bit more, go with some four-flat, and have her come off screens. Then, all of a sudden, she goes down. You think the girl’s invincible. But it stinks even more because Ava is an outstanding person with a positive personality and a great work ethic. She’s just a great person to be around.”
The turn of events, which left Notre Dame with just six regular players who have played major minutes over the course of the season, robbed the Lady Titans of a key secondary ballhandler and arguably the quickest player in the Southeast District regardless of class. Katie Dettwiller answered valiantly with two huge baskets off of putbacks to keep Notre Dame right in the thick of things early, but a 5-0 run by Waterford over the final 50.5 seconds of the quarter ultimately resulted in an 11-6 Lady Titans’ advantage after a quarter of play. A three by Hannah Duff, along with two finishes by Kenzie Dietz inside, allowed Notre Dame to obtain a 25-11 halftime lead.
“We got discombobulated for a while, and it’s understandable,” McKenzie said. “As a coaching staff, we tried to reel it in and call timeouts, and we just didn’t execute what we were talking about in the timeouts. We were saying, ‘Hey, if we get some reversals here, we can get good looks,’ and we just weren’t patient offensively and started making mistakes. It snowballed really quick after that. But if you take that four or five-minute segment away, even with Ava going down, we’re right in this daggone ballgame. It’s a tie ballgame when she gets hurt, and it would’ve been exciting to see what could’ve been, but I could not be more proud of the girls and their effort.”
But after Rachael Adams scored five straight points in the third quarter of action off of her transition play en route to increasing Waterford’s lead to a game-high 23 points (34-11), Notre Dame rallied back with a vengance.
Three consecutive second-chance rebounds by Dettwiller and Lexi Smith — with the latter starting the run on a rebound and putback with 3:03 to play in the third quarter of action, allowed the pair, along with Ali Smith, to strike the scoreboard as Notre Dame cut Waterford’s lead to a 34-17 margin after three quarters of play.
That mark, however, was just the beginning. Behind the play of Taylor Schmidt — who scored on a layup, another Dettwiller putback, and an and-one in the lane by Ali Smith with 5:56 to play, the Lady Titans cut the once 34-11 margin to 10, 34-24, with time remaining to make a serious push.
Molly Hoover’s two-way play at the point guard position — both at defending her assignment at the top of the 1-3-1 zone and her ability to find the open teammate in transition — were critical in a huge spurt that gave Notre Dame serious life as Ali Smith’s off-balance floater in the middle of the paint through contact got everyone up out of their seats. Dettwiler, Ali Smith, and Lexi Smith ultimately finished with 10, 10, and four points, respectively.
“That run was fun to watch,” McKenzie said. “We stood on the defensive end with our 1-3-1, and we’re playing out of position because Ava’s always at the top of the zone. So Molly comes to the top, and we’re moving pieces around to run it effectively, and I thought that Molly did a great job at the top of that zone. Ali made some big plays and Katie and Lexi were physical. We did some really good things tonight, we just did too many things that we normally don’t do. I’m not making excuses for the girls, but it’s understandable that, as a 15, 16, 17-year old kid, when you watch your teammate go down, that mentally, there was a lapse there for a while. That stinks, but it was exciting to see that fight, even after we overcame so much. As a coach, you love to see that.”
However, the comeback just wasn’t to be. After obtaining another key defensive stop, Notre Dame set up another attempt from deep as Taylor Schmidt pulled on an excellent look from the left corner. The shot, however, rimmed in and out, and Waterford’s Alli Kern followed with a basket inside. Then, after a basket from Lexi Smith, the Lady ‘Cats stymied the hopes of a Notre Dame comeback as Adams and Ball knocked in back-to-back treys to increase the lead to a 44-26 margin, which closed out the affair for good. Those two treys — and Waterford’s five for the contest compared to Notre Dame’s one — proved to be critical in the final result.
“The girls cut that thing there to 10 late, and had a chance to cut it to seven on a three,” McKenzie said. “It just didn’t go down for us. We had to hit some outside shots, and we didn’t and they did. It made it hard enough for them to score, but I believe that we gave a valiant effort considering the circumstances.”
With the win, Waterford, who was led by Megan Ball’s 13 points, Rachael Adams’ 10, and Alli Kern’s nine, will play Fairfield Christian on Saturday evening at Pickerington Central.
Even with its season at an end, Notre Dame, who finished with a 25-1 overall record, accomplished a goal that had never been reached before in school history with the Lady Titans’ first Division IV District Championship in school history — to add onto what has already been an outstanding year for many of the girls who had already claimed the school’s first regional victory on the volleyball side of the coin.
The new standard that has been set on the basketball side is a credit to Molly Hoover, Ali Smith, and Lexi Smith, who are the three outgoing seniors. The trio posted a record of 88-12 as members of the Notre Dame Titans’ girls basketball program and delivered four SOC I Championships, four Division IV Sectional Championships, and the first Division IV District Championship in program history to the ever-growing trophy case. In addition to all of that, the trio will leave the program with the highest single-season and career winning percentages in the history of the program — an accomplishment that very few senior classes get to enjoy.
“Those are three girls that I deeply care about,” McKenzie said. “They have been ambassadors for these younger girls and have been cornerstones for this program. They’ve won 85-plus games, four SOC I Championships, four sectional championships, and a district championship. I wrote 25-1, SOC Champs, Sectional Champs, and District Champs on the board, and said, ‘That’s a heck of a season right there. Anybody would be proud of that. I know it stinks to lose, but you went out fighting.’ It stinks to lose Ali, Lexi, and Molly. Anytime your season ends, and seniors go on, it’s tough. They’re not going to be replaced easily, but they set a gold standard for this program, and were great role models for these young girls to look up to as far as hard work is concerned. We hate to lose them, but those are three girls that will go on and do great things later on in life.”
But that answer isn’t a surprise considering the kind of characters that family, friends, coaches, and — even on Thursday evening — have seen when watching Notre Dame play.
“One of the refs came over to me and said, ‘Your girls have fight in them,’ and I said, ‘You’re daggone right they do.’”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT