PORTSMOUTH — Notre Dame coach J.D. McKenzie admits that last Thursday’s 48-38 win over Eastern Meigs in a Division IV district final wasn’t a pretty one … at least to him anyways.
On paper, the Titans gave up less than 40 points — again — and held the Eagles to just 14-of-47 shooting. To almost any other team, that’s a good night. But Notre Dame wants more.
The Titans, at 24-1, will get a chance to bounce back in their own minds while taking on Peebles, at 18-7, in a Division IV regional semifinal, Thursday evening. The Indians are coming off a 50-39 win over Waterford a week ago, one where their best scorer, Jacey Justice, had 14 points.
To beat the Indians, McKenzie knows his Titans must stop Justice, who enters with an average of 24.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Her 14 points against Waterford was her second-lowest scoring output all year long.
Considering the fact that Notre Dame struggled to keep Eastern Meigs’ Alyson Bailey under wraps last week, stopping Justice is easier said than done.
“Jacey is different than the Bailey girl because she doesn’t leak out and do things like that,” McKenzie said. “But Jacey is very versatile. She shoots the ball very well, gets to the rim, and it seems like she scores in transition well. So we’re going to run our two best defenders on her and try to deny her the ball as much as possible. It’s about limiting her touches.”
The Indians’ offense certainly runs through Justice. But they also have other capable scorers.
Junior Tatum Arey brings in a 10.4 point per game average, Lilly Gray boasts figures of 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds and Jerilin Toler is a 3-point threat.
“If you just look at their stats, Arey jumps out at you … Gray, Toller shoots it well from outside, so those girls are capable of scoring, too,” McKenzie said. “They can hurt you in different ways. They’re a long team, quick, athletic and aggressiveness. But a lot of that stuff does go through Jacey. So it’s kind of the old adage of, ‘Can you cut the head off the snake?’”
If that adage is true, Notre Dame’s Olivia Smith will be holding the shovel. The 5-foot-5 junior was explosive on the defensive end against Eastern Meigs, and has been all season long.
“I know where I’m not as good on the offensive end, I know I have to make up for it,” Smith said. “So I knew I can control that. Defense is the thing I’m most excited for. I plan on trying to hold [Justice] down on points and keep her from scoring so everyone else can do their jobs.”
Smith joins a defense, led by 6-foot-4 Katie Dettwiller in the paint, that’s giving up just 26.8 points per game. McKenzie is hoping the Indians haven’t seen a defense quite like that.
“I think good defense beats good offense every time,” he said. “We’ve been a good defensive team all year long. Last Thursday [in a win over Eastern Meigs], I think that was one of the worst games we’ve played this season. We still didn’t give up 40 points. So if we show up and give one of our better defensive efforts, hopefully, it works out for us.”
Offensively, the Titans have multiple weapons that can put the ball in the hole. Dettwiller leads the group at 16.3 points per game, followed by Ava Hassel’s 11.1. Taylor Schmidt [7.9], Isabel Cassidy [6.2] and Claire Dettwiller [4.4] also have a knack for getting to the rim.
Schmidt, who was injured earlier this season, hasn’t missed a beat since returning to the lineup. She pointed out the team’s depth as a significant advantage.
“Sitting out, you just see the game differently from the bench,” Schmidt said. “We’re all very unselfish and we love to see everyone succeed. Our bench is always super lit. We don’t go out and try to get our own points, our own steals … we just try to play as a team.”
This year’s district title was the program’s second consecutive and second-ever. The Titans have never been in a regional semifinal. But there’s a first time for everything.
The Titans and Indians have a scheduled tip time for 7 p.m., Thursday at Jackson High School.
“Last year, we were so excited to win a district title and get a shot at Waterford,” McKenzie said. “I didn’t feel like we were OK with just making it there. I thought we were prepared. So I think we can lean on not being satisfied. We’re not satisfied with just winning a district title. We won’t be satisfied if we win Thursday and don’t win Saturday. These girls’ mindsets are getting to state.”