JACKSON — For 99-percent of the girls basketball teams in the state of Ohio, the first day of the 2019-20 season was October 25 — the first official day of coaching.
For the Notre Dame Lady Titans, their 2019-20 campaign began the day after last season’s Division IV regional semifinal.
Nearly a full year after their untimely demise, the Lady Titans handed the Peebles Lady Indians a 36-30 loss to reach their first Divsion IV regional final in program history, a feeling that will likely be unmatched — until Saturday’s Elite Eight game versus Fort Frye, that is.
“We’re feeling ecstatic, you just can’t say that this point right here is enough. We’ve got to get back to work, but man we’re enjoying the heck out of it,” Notre Dame coach J.D. McKenzie said. “We’ve been so close the last three years and felt like we had an opportunity the last three years to take that next step. To do it tonight, to see the looks on those girls’ faces, our coaching staff, parents, fans — there’s nothing like it. Unbelievable.”
It didn’t exactly take a scientist to tell Notre Dame of the challenge it faced when going against Peebles after its 46-42 season-ending loss to the Lady Indians a year ago.
Instead of dwelling on what could have been, what should have been, etc., McKenzie and the Lady Titans took the task of Thursday’s regional semifinal head-on with what they could and would ultimately be able to accomplish this year — their first Elite Eight appearance in program history.
“There wasn’t one time where we talked about last year before this game. All we talked about was this game, this year,” said McKenzie. “We didn’t mention anything about last year — losing Katie, Clara (Hash), and Baylee (Webb). We talked about what we needed to do this game to win it. We had a great game-plan. Matt Mader, Joe Smith, Greg Smith, Crystal McKenzie, Molly Hoover all worked their butts off as a coaching staff this week to get us prepared. I don’t know that we’ve been more prepared for a game in my 10 years of coaching than we were tonight, and it showed. We executed at a high level of what we wanted to do and held a really, really good offensive team to 30 points.”
Notre Dame took a 14-13 lead over the Lady Indians with 5:05 left in the second quarter — and never again trailed en route to capturing its revenge-win best served cold.
After Peebles coach Billie Jo Justice called a timeout following what would be the final lead change, Lady Titans senior Cassie Schaefer connected on a three — her lone make of the game, just as was the case in their district final win over Belpre — to extend Notre Dame’s lead to 17-13.
Schaefer’s much-needed three helped the Lady Titans establish their lead after they went just one-for-15 from the field during the first period.
“We were 2-for-15 from three in the first half, and we had so many doggone good looks. Ava (Hassel) was one-of-seven, a normal game she’s four-of seven and we’re kicking the barn doors open,” McKenzie said. “I thought we played really well, got some great looks, Cassie hits that three and it’s a momentum-changer.”
Although the 2019 Division IV Southeast District Player of the Year and Notre Dame alum Katie Dettwiller was cheering on her alma mater from her spot on the Saint Francis’ women’s basketball team, her younger sister — Notre Dame junior Claire Dettwiller — delivered a performance that had to make big-sister proud by scoring seven of her eight points during the first half and grabbing a stiffling game-high 20 rebounds.
For the game, the Lady Titans out-rebounded Peebles 35-23.
Simply put, Dettwiller’s impact on the final score can’t, and shouldn’t be, understated.
“We stressed all-week long about keeping (Lilly) Gray off the boards, where she could kill us. I could see that it clicked for Claire during practice this week,” said McKenzie, of Dettwiller’s performance. “Anybody that came near her she was putting a body on them, driving them out of there. We talked about how important rebounding was, how important not turning over the basketball was, and limiting their transition points.”
Notre Dame extended its lead to as many as 11 at 25-14 — when Ava Hassel scored her second field goal of the second half at the 3:57 mark of the third.
Olivia Smith and Taylor Schmidt connected on a fourth-quarter field goal apiece, as they attempted to hold off the Lady Indians’ comeback bid.
The 2020 Division IV Southeast District Player of the Year, Peebles’ Jacey Justice, managed just 10 points in the Lady Indians’ season-ending loss.
Justice, who was either face-guarded by Smith or Schaefer or double-teamed for the duration of the contest, scored her final points when she went three-for-three at the free-throw line to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 30-27 with 2:10 left in the game.
After having their lead cut to three, Hassel and Schmidt stepped up with the pressure of their season on the line, connecting on six-of-nine free-throw attempts in the final 2:10 to keep the Lady Indians at a distance.
“I would have loved to been up more than three when we started doing that,” McKenzie joked. “Taylor’s been huge at the line in the postseason, Ava’s always really good at the line. That’s what you expect out of juniors and seniors, very proud that they stepped up and knocked those shots down.”
The Lady Titans surrendered possession 11 times, while forcing 14 Peebles turnovers in their six-point regional semifinals win.
After the emotions of getting over the proverbial hump finally settle down, Notre Dame must focus its attention on its next opponent, Fort Frye, after the Lady Cadets earned a 37-28 win over Berne Union in their regional semifinal at Pickerington North High School.
Sure, the Lady Cadets have somewhat of an advantage having already played a game at the host site for Saturday’s regional final.
Still, it’s uncharted territory for Notre Dame and McKenzie — as they hope to become the first basketball team from Scioto County, boys or girls, to reach their respective state semifinals since Portsmouth’s boys back-to-back regional titles in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons.
One step away from achieving what most teams can only dream of, which of course means Notre Dame will stick to exactly what has gotten it this far in the first place.
“We’re going to be on the road trying to pick up film on the way home,” McKenzie said, looking towards Saturday’s regional final. “We can’t re-invent the wheel at this point. We added a couple of things defensively that maybe we can use Saturday. Sent a couple of scouts up there, so we’ll have an idea of what we want to do. Twenty-six games into the season, you do what got you here. We’re going to play great defense, we’re going to get after it, and we’re going to try to rebound really well and let the cards fall where they may.”
Notre Dame and Fort Frye will do-battle in a Division IV regional final from Pickerington North High School on Saturday night — with tipoff slated for 7:30 p.m.
“So proud of Notre Dame as a community, fans, kids,” McKenzie said. “It’s almost unspeakable how awesome the feeling is.”
Notre Dame 6 14 5 11 — 36
Peebles 8 6 4 12 — 30
NOTRE DAME (24-2)
Taylor Schmidt 1 4-6 6, Ava Hassel 4 3-4 13, Cassie Schaefer 1 0-0 3, Olivia Smith 1 0-0 2, Claire Dettwiller 1 6-10 8, Isabel Cassidy 0 0-0 0, Lauren Campbell 2 0-3 4; TOTALS: 10 13-25 36; Three-point field goals: 3 (Ava Hassel 2, Cassie Schaefer 1)
Harlee Wilkinson 1 1-2 3, Natalee Workman 0 0-0 0, Marissa Moore 0 0-0 0, Jacey Justice 3 3-3 10, Madison Beekman 1 3-6 5, Tatum Arey 3 2-4 8, Hope Brown 0 0-0 0, Lilly Gray 1 2-2 4; TOTALS 9 11-19 30; Three-point field goals: 1 (Jacey Justice 1)
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved