PORTSMOUTH — They say that the third time is indeed the charm.
For the Notre Dame Lady Titans, it’s their third consecutive regional semifinal appearance —and perhaps it’s their best opportunity of advancing to the coveted “Elite Eight”, which is in fact the next step for the highly-successful Division IV girls basketball program of the past decade.
Sure Southern Ohio Conference Division I championships, 10 straight sectional titles and three district crowns in a row are all nice and wonderful, but the 2020 Lady Titans have been all about reaching this particular point — and finally getting beyond.
And, what better team to do that against — while serving a cold dish of revenge to — than the Peebles Lady Indians.
On Thursday night, the 23-2 Lady Titans try — and try again — to reach the regional championship tilt for the first time in program history, as Notre Dame and 22-3 Peebles play in a “Sweet 16” rematch from a year ago.
Moreover, just like last year, it takes place at Jackson High School with tipoff set for 7 p.m.
The winner will advance to Saturday night’s Division IV Region 15 final at Pickerington North High School — and meet the winner of Thursday’s other semifinal between Berne Union and Fort Frye.
That contest takes place at Pickerington North, as that winner will already own an advantage of playing in that gymnasium just two days prior.
As for the Lady Titans, reaching the “Elite Eight” has been goal one from day one.
Notre Dame defeated Belpre 49-35 in last week’s district championship, as this season’s district title — and subsequent regional tournament berth — was certainly the expectation.
“The expectations for the girls was to get there and win that game. So we met those, and now it’s on to the next one. It was a business attitude and it’s what we expected,” said Notre Dame coach J.D. McKenzie, in an interview on Monday. “We didn’t overlook anybody, but we would have been pretty disappointed if we wouldn’t have won a district championship and got this far. We got right back to work this week, because we have a sour taste in our mouths from last year and even the year before in the regionals. So we’re pretty focused on the task at hand right now, which is taking the next step.”
Most observers believed that Notre Dame’s destiny of winning a regional championship was last season, when it entered the semifinal at 24-1 —and were considered favorites to defeat the up-and-coming Lady Indians.
But the final four-plus minutes were Notre Dame’s demise, and the Lady Indians — despite then-sophomore scoring machine Jacey Justice only amounting 13 points — upset the Lady Titans 46-42.
Notre Dame, despite leading 37-30 with seven minutes and 22 seconds remaining, fell victim to an 11-2 Lady Indians’ run —and standout point guard Ava Hassel fouled out with over two minutes remaining.
The Lady Titans turned the ball over 17 times, and couldn’t buy a basket in that final quarter.
It was the final game for Notre Dame’s six-foot four-inch senior standout Katie Detwiller, who was the Southeast District Division IV Player of the Year from the Ohio Prep Sports Writers Association.
She scored 26 of the Lady Titans’ 42 points, and grabbed 10 rebounds.
McKenzie made it fully known how he felt at the time — and still does to this very day.
“We watched that film a few times, but we weren’t going to watch it forever. Didn’t watch for a long time because I was so sickened by it. Four minutes to go, we were up seven, but then the wheels just fell off. We made some mistakes, there were a couple of questionable calls, Ava (Hassel) fouls out and Katie (Detwiller) gets an intentional foul. Just the perfect storm the last four minutes and we weren’t able to recover. After that game, I sat in a separate locker-room for about 35 minutes just talking to my wife. It’s the hardest loss I’ve ever been a part of,” he said. “I felt we were the better team, and that we had a pretty good chance of making a state run. It was devastating to me as a coach, and I know it was devastating to the girls. It took a long time.”
But, up until that fourth quarter, McKenzie believed the Lady Titans were almost in complete control.
“In watching that film, up until the last four minutes we really controlled the game. We were making it tough on them, we were outrebounding them, and we were getting good looks inside to Katie,” he said. “The good thing is you can watch that film and see where we had some advantages and what things we did well, and see those mistakes that we need to clean up for this year.”
While the Lady Titans’ on-court execution is a different discussion, Notre Dame’s motivation for the rematch will surely not be in short supply.
“It’s just the fact that this is the round we lost in last year, and we want to take it at least a step further this year. But this is the third year in a row we’ve played Peebles in the tournament — at the district final level or beyond,” said McKenzie. “It’s more of a revenge for us than it is against the team we’re playing.”
Whom the Lady Titans are playing is the Lady Indians, whose only losses were to Frontier Athletic Conference co-champions and Division II Miami Trace and to Division III regional semifinalists North Adams and Eastern Brown.
In the district championship triumph against Trimble, Peebles pulled off another comeback win —trailing 28-20 at halftime before winning 51-45.
Justice, the front-runner for this season’s district POY award which Detwiller won, returns as a (5-8) junior —and averages 26.5 points per game after averaging 23.5 points per contest last year.
In fact, all of Justice’s last two seasons’ statistics are similar — as her assists per game have climbed from four to six.
She holds the all-time career scoring record for Peebles with over 1,700 points, and has scored at least 30 points in nine games.
“You’re talking about one of the best players in all of Ohio that can shoot it, drive it, defend it, pass it…she does everything. She has a really good motor and she doesn’t seem to get tired,” said McKenzie. “Everything they do goes through her. Last year, we held her to 13 points. I’m not saying we’ll do that again this year, but we can’t let her go off and have 35. They had some girls step up last year that made some shots and scored some points. We can’t allow that to happen.”
The leading Lady Indian from last season’s showdown is 5-9 senior Tatum Arey, who scored 15 points and averages 9.6 points per game with 4.4 rebounds.
Justice’s fellow junior teammate —5-10 Lilly Gray —is averaging 14 points and six rebounds per game.
“We can’t pay too much attention to Jacey where we’re not paying attention to other girls that can step up and make shots and get rebound putbacks,” said McKenzie. “There are things we have to do to hold Peebles the entire team in check offensively, let alone just Jacey. Both (Tatum) Arey and (Lilly) Gray are athletic and have good motors and run the floor and jump and do all the things you want a basketball player to do. Those two especially hurt us last year. They are the two besides Jacey that we really have to focus on and hold in check and not let them get easy baskets.”
While Katie Detwiller has graduated, six-foot junior Claire Detwiller and 5-9 senior Lauren Campbell will step in underneath — and battle both Arey and Gray on the boards.
“We can’t let them get offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities. We’ve been stressing that this week,” said McKenzie. “Claire and Lauren both in the post are going to have to fill that role of Katie. Katie had 26 points against them last year, and they had trouble with her. We’re not asking for 26 points out of Claire and Lauren combined, but we are asking for double-digit points and double-digit rebounds and defensively to keep their girls off the glass. Make sure we’re not giving up easy points in the paint.”
Claire Detwiller averages 6.8 points and 6.6 rebounds, and takes some of the scoring pressure off Hassel and Taylor Schmidt, who average 16.3 and 10.7 points per game respectively.
Of course, Hassel has to stay on the floor and out of foul trouble —as she and the Lady Titans do play an aggressive and active man-to-man defense.
“We’re going to do what we do defensively. We’re not going to re-invent the wheel. If we play as hard as we possibly can, we’ve got a great chance to come out on top. It we play timid and non-aggressive, we’re going to get beat,” said McKenzie. “It’s that simple.”
It’s also as simple, or at least the Lady Titans hope it is, that the third time is indeed the charm.
“At this stage, you have to have some things go your way. We have to have a couple of balls bounce in our favor. We struggled shooting from outside last year against them. I think we only made one or two threes. If we make six to eight threes, I feel good about our chances. If we miss 20 like we did last year, it’s not going to be in our benefit because they score in transition so well and missed shots lead to that,” said McKenzie. “I also like this year because I believe we’re the underdog. I prefer that role better and have our kids’ mindset that way. Last year, we went into that game as probably the favorite, and this year, I don’t feel that way. That’s a good place to be.”
Where the Lady Titans want to be is in the “Elite Eight” on Saturday night.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved