Notre Dame falls in state semifinals

Steve Junga, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
·5 min read

Mar. 13—DAYTON — Notre Dame took a run at ending the 70-game winning streak of Ohio basketball power Cincinnati Mount Notre Dame in Friday night's Division I girls state semifinals at University of Dayton Arena.

In fact, the fifth-ranked Eagles (16-2) owned a 35-33 lead with 3:19 left in the third quarter.

But that was as good as it would get for Notre Dame, as the top-ranked Cougars (27-0) used a game-breaking 13-0 run to take control, then ran their streak to 71 in a row with a 59-50 victory.

"This was a tough one," 13th-year Eagles coach Travis Galloway said. "I thought our kids played tremendous. They executed our game plan, for the most part, exactly how we wanted them to.

"We hit a bad stretch where we missed a few shots inside, and they got hot from the perimeter."

Mount Notre Dame, which also defeated the Eagles 53-39 during the regular season, will face second-ranked Newark (27-1) for the D-I championship Saturday night here.

The Cougars were led by junior K.K. Bransford' s 26 points and nine rebounds, and University of Michigan-bound senior Laila Phelia added 20 points for CMND, which will be going for its eighth state championship.

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"They have great chemistry between them, and they do a good job of putting you in tough situations defensively," Galloway said of the Cougars 1-2 punch of Bransford and Phelia. "When they find something, they continue to go to it. Obviously they're very talented individually, but they also play so well off each other."

Over the game's final 11:05, Mount Notre Dame outscored the Eagles 26-15, and Bransford and Phelia combined for 20 of their team's points..

"I thought we had them on the ropes, to be honest," Galloway said. "I did. The end of the third quarter, which I'll take the blame for, hurt us. I wish I would've handled that part of the game a lot better.

"But, our players are unbelievable competitors. They love playing with each other and for each other. I couldn't be prouder of them."

The Eagles have reached eight state final fours in the past 10 seasons, but have yet to win a championship. The 2015 and 2017 Notre Dame teams were D-I state runners-up.

Notre Dame junior standout Grace VanSlooten topped the Eagles with 20 points and eight rebounds. Senior teammates Olivia Sims, Aly Ray, and Tialyn King each added eight points.

The Cougars' big rally began a minute before VanSlooten injured her knee while dribbling toward the basket in transition. She did not leave the game, but limped for the remainder of the quarter.

"I just hyper-extended something," VanSlooten said. "It took a little while for me to get back, but that's all part of the game."

After falling behind by six points early in the second quarter, Notre Dame found its rhythm for the first time.

The Eagles hit three 3-pointers during an 11-4 run to take the lead twice, and trailed just 25-24 at halftime.

After the Cougars opened the third quarter on a driving bucket from Bransford, Notre Dame regained its momentum, this time for an 11-6 surge.

"At halftime, we said, 'We have to stay calm, and stay together,'" Sims said. "We knew it could go our way or their way. We came out, and our goal was to hit them first. For a little bit, we did that. And then, after that..."

Included were VanSlooten's conventional three-point play and her two subsequent inside buckets that gave the Eagles a 33-31 lead midway in the third.

After Bransford tied things on a 16-footer from the left wing, Smith's runner gave Notre Dame its final lead of the game with 3:19 left in the third.

Bransford, who also had seven assists and three steals, connected on a 3-pointer 14 seconds late to put CMND up for good.

It was the start of the decisive 13-0 run that she capped on another 16-footer from the left wing for a 46-35 edge 1:23 into the fourth quarter.

"It was everything that we thought it would be in terms of how competitive it was," Cougars coach Scott Rogers said. "We expect nothing less from Toledo Notre Dame. That's a great program. Their girls are outstanding student-athletes, and they're well-coached.

"It was a matter of wills tonight, and I think in the second half our players decided that the wanted to get to [Saturday] night. We finally we able to solve some of the things they were doing to us offensively, and the kids did a great job of adjusting."

The Cougars went up by as many as 13 points on three occasions down the stretch.

"The main that that we did was we adjusted our defense so that Grace wasn't getting so many easy looks," Rogers said. "From that point on, she had to really work to get her touches.

"And, they had to concern themselves with K.K., over the top, and with Laila. So, it was a combination of things."

Notre Dame was 19-of-46 (41 percent) from the field, including 6-of-13 on 3-pointers, and was 6-of-7 at the foul line. The Eagles were outrebounded 35-24, and committed 10 turnovers while forcing just three.

"It's super frustrating," VanSlooten said, "but there's nothing I would change. I'm super proud of my teammates."

Added Sims: "We went through three quarantines, so just being here, I'm so grateful."

Mount Notre Dame, paced by Pheila's 9-of-13 shooting, was 23-of-50 (46 percent) in the game, including just 3-of-18 on 3-pointers and 10-of-20 at the line.

The Cougars had defeated Notre Dame, 54-44, in the 2017 D-I championship game. Their seventh state title came in 2019.

The Cougars were scheduled to play Notre Dame in last year's state semifinals in Columbus when the Ohio High School Athletic Association halted all winter sports tournaments in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic.

First Published March 12, 2021, 8:50pm