JACKSON — There was a time when the Division IV district stage gave the Notre Dame girls basketball program more than fits.
In his first season as head coach, J.D. McKenzie led the Lady Titans to the program’s first district runner-up finish.
Fast-forward five years to 2016 and six years to 2017 and the Lady Titans fell just short of their first district title in program history by one game each season — dropping their overall mark in district finals to 0-3.
My, how long ago those days must seem.
That’s because McKenzie’s Lady Titans, in their 49-35 win over Belpre in Thursday’s Division IV district final played at Jackson High School, claimed their third straight district crown in the program’s fifth straight appearance.
Reflecting on those facts, McKenzie admitted that while his team’s Shaq and Kobe-esque three-peat at the district level is a long-desired achievement, their eyes fall solely on winning their next game and making the regional finals for the first time in school history.
“Talked to the seniors about how impressive this is. It’s their 95th win against seven losses. Five straight district finals and three straight district titles,” McKenzie said. “These kids play basketball, play other sports. Some kids don’t even get to make it to a district title, so to win three in a row, it’s just incredible — what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished. But we have to get past this. We’ve got to put in the work this week to get to the next level.”
In its 14-point decision over Belpre, Notre Dame quickly jumped out to a double-digit lead early in the second quarter.
Ava Hassel finished the first on a personal 8-2 run as the Lady Titans held a 15-6 lead over the Lady Golden Eagles.
The junior all-district guard scored 10 of her team-high 16 points during the first quarter, as Notre Dame held a nine-point lead. Taylor Schmidt, the Notre Dame senior who happened to be celebrating a birthday the same day as their distrcit final win, scored eight of her 13 points in the first half.
Junior Claire Dettwiller scored six of her eight points during the second quarter as Notre Dame expanded its lead to 28-17 at halftime. As a team, Notre Dame connected on four of its seven three-point makes during the first half of play.
“We shot a little better from the outside than we have in some of our tournament games,” McKenzie said. “Ava really was able to knock down some big threes for us to give us some energy. There were just times that I felt we rushed it, either rushed a shot or took a bad shot and that kind of killed our momentum. We can’t get just a shot when we have possession, but a good shot.”
As Belpre attempted to gain ground, cutting the Lady Titans’ lead to as small as seven at 32-25 in the second half, Cassie Schaefer delivered one of the knockout blows Notre Dame as a team would deliver.
Schaefer knocked down her lone field goal of the game — one of their seven three-point makes — to extend Notre Dame’s lead back to double digits.
Minutes later, with time quickly winding down on the third-quarter clock, Hassel drove to draw a double-team before dishing off to a wide-open Lauren Campbell on the block — as the Lady Titans extended their lead back to 10 at 37-27 after three.
“Cassie hasn’t been shooting real well lately, but she has been knocking down like one three a game,” McKenzie said. “It’s been when we needed it. The play at the end where Lauren scored, there was a scramble for the ball, Ava takes it to the rim so they have to come up, she drops it down when she sees the open man. Getting it to double-digits there before the fourth was big.”
It wouldn’t be a Lady Titans’ win without discussing their defense.
Holding the Lady Golden Eagles to a combined 14 points in the first and fourth quarters, McKenzie’s group forced 22 Belpre turnovers — while surrendering possession just 12 times themselves.
The result? Notre Dame attempting 55 shots from the field compared to Belpre’s 34 — zero of which were made threes as senior Kyna Waderker led all scorers with a game-high 17 on eight field goals.
“I told the girls at halftime I thought we were playing hard, just fundamentally we weren’t that great to start,” McKenzie said. “We had a couple of miscues where we had lost people, not playing defense in transition, which is not something we normally do. Throughout the game, we told them we wanted to make them work for every possession; no points in transition, no offensive rebounds. When we did do that, they struggled to score. When we didn’t, they got some points.”
Following the program’s third straight district title to move on, the Lady Titans will have to pass a stage they’ve yet to do to this point.
Following its 51-45 win over Trimble in Thursday’s nightcap Division IV district final, Notre Dame will have to go through Peebles in a rematch of last year’s regional semifinal to reach its first Elite Eight in program history.
Knowing the two’s history, McKenzie and his group will certainly be ready for their shot at revenge over the Lady Indians — following last year’s 46-42 season-ending defeat at the same stage.
“Both teams coming out in this game are really really good,” McKenzie said. “Obviously the Peebles game last year speaks for itself, would love to get another shot at them. We’re just watching to see where we think they might have weaknesses, see how we can exploit those. Get back to work tomorrow and this weekend, going to be all hands on deck going into regionals because we really want to get to that next level.”
Notre Dame and Peebles will face off in a Division IV regional semifinal on Thursday, March 5 at 7 p.m. back at Jackson High School.
Belpre — 6 11 10 8
Notre Dame 15 13 9 12 — 49
BELPRE 35 (19-6)
Halee Williams 2 0-0 4, Abbey LaFatch 0 0-0 0, Kaitlen Bush 3 0-0 6, Kyna Waderker 8 1-4 17, Curstin Giffin 3 2-2 8, Kyanna Ray 0 0-0 0; TOTALS: 16 3-6 35; Three-point field goals: none
NOTRE DAME 49 (23-2)
Taylor Schmidt 5 1-2 13, Ava Hassel 6 1-2 16, Cassie Schaefer 1 0-0 3, Olivia Smith 0 0-0 0, Claire Dettwiller 3 2-2 8, Isabel Cassidy 2 0-0 5, Lauren Campbell 2 0-0 4; TOTALS: 19 4-6 49; Three-point field goals: 7 (Ava Hassel 3, Taylor Schmidt 2, Isabel Cassidy and Cassie Schaefer 1 apiece)
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved