With one hurdle out of the way, another big one has replaced it as Notre Dame gets set to play in the Division I state girls basketball semifinals.
The Eagles are Toledo’s first team, boys or girls, to reach three consecutive state tournaments.
Seventh-ranked Notre Dame (24-3) — which lost to Kettering Fairmont in its past trips to Columbus — will take on top-ranked Cincinnati Princeton (26-2) at 6 p.m. Friday at Ohio State’s Schottenstein Center.
Sixth-year ND coach Travis Galloway (115-32 record) admitted that he and his team were relieved when they learned that Fairmont was eliminated in the regional semifinals by Princeton.
The Firebirds had topped the Eagles 54-45 in 2012, 37-31 last year, then hammered Notre Dame 63-26 in January at the Classic in the Country invitational in Berlin, Ohio.
But the hurdle that replaced Fairmont may prove just as difficult.
“From a psychological aspect for our players, not having to see Kettering Fairmont again is good,” Galloway said. “It’s a chance to see somebody different.
“But then we have to go up against a very good team in Princeton with a superstar in Kelsey Mitchell. That’s a whole different kind of hurdle to jump on Friday.”
In Princeton’s 81-65 regional win against Fairmont, Mitchell, the Vikings’ Ohio State-bound 5-foot-7 senior point guard, scored an all-time Nutter Center record 50 points. She hit 15 of 24 shots from the field (including 3 for 6 on 3-pointers) and 17 of 18 free throws. She also had nine assists and four rebounds.
Already selected the Associated Press Division I state player of the year, Mitchell will likely be named Ohio’s 2014 Ms. Basketball and will play in the prestigious McDonald’s All-American game next month.
Mitchell’s twin sister, Chelsea, has also signed to play at Ohio State, where their father, Mark Mitchell, is an assistant coach for the Buckeyes.
Kelsey has averaged 24.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 4.1 steals for the Vikings as a senior.
What impresses Galloway about Kelsey Mitchell’s game?
“Everything,” the Eagles coach said. “Her athletic ability is off the chart, her basketball IQ is off the chart, and her skill set if off the chart. You have to game-plan for her to do the best you can to slow her down offensively, but you also have to game-plan for where she is defensively.
“She’s the most complete [Ohio girls] player I’ve ever seen from the standpoint of making her teammates better and taking a game over when she has to. In my opinion, she’s the best player in the state of Ohio, if not the country.”
If Notre Dame now has a hump to get over in its third trip to Columbus, Princeton’s roadblock came the previous four seasons in the regional semifinals. The Vikings lost four straight at that level — to Fairmont (2010, 2012), Springboro (2011), and Centerville (2013).
And, speaking of barriers, the state semifinals has been just that for Catholic schools from Toledo. Central Catholic reached the semifinals six times and never advanced.
By comparison, Toledo Public Schools teams boast a 6-3 record in the state final four. Woodward won the first Class AAA title in 1976, Libbey followed with a Class AAA title in 1981, and both Start (2009) and Waite (2010) won Division I state semifinals. The 2011 Start team is the only TPS team to lose a state semifinal.
If Princeton has a star solo act, Notre Dame has one of Ohio’s best trios in 6-2 juniors Tierra Floyd and Kaayla McIntyre, who were named to the Division I All-Ohio first and second teams, respectively, and 6-foot senior Jayda Worthy, the team’s court leader who came back after missing 10 games in midseason because of knee surgery.
Floyd, a versatile wing, averages 16.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game.
“We’re confident but not overconfident,” said Floyd, who didn’t score in last year’s semifinal. “We have the mentality that we can go in and win the whole thing. I don’t like to think about the game from last year, but I use it as motivation, and I know that this year I have to come out a lot stronger than I did last year.”
McIntyre averages 13.1 points and 7.8 rebounds.
“I think we’re a lot more focused this year,” McIntyre said. “We want it more than we did the previous years, and we have a lot more threats than we did those two years.
“We’re used to playing on that court so we won’t be as nervous as we were those previous years. With that experience I think we’ll be more ready to play.”
Worthy averages 10.4 points and 4.8 rebounds.
“I’m very motivated,” Worthy said. “I’ve been down there two times, and it’s been one of my goals to help my teammates get a state championship before I leave.
“We’re definitely going to be used to the court and the environment down there. The first two years we were kind of in awe of the environment. But I think we’re ready."
The Eagles’ Big Three combined for 45 of Notre Dame’s 51 points (88 percent) and 23 of the Eagles’ 30 rebounds (77 percent) in last Saturday’s 51-42 regional final victory against Wadsworth.
Rounding out Notre Dame’s starting lineup are 5-5 junior point guard Christiana Jefferson (5.6 points) and 5-7 freshman guard Mariah Copeland (6.9 points).
The Eagles’ top subs are senior Talajha Parker and juniors Dorian Miller, Jami Huth, and Kyndra Gaines.
Each team is outscoring opponents by roughly 20 points per game. The more deliberate Notre Dame is scoring 59.7 points per game and allowing 39.5. The faster-paced Vikings are outscoring foes 70.1 to 49.5.
Vikings coach Jill Phillips (241-46 in 12 seasons) points out that any opponents who view Princeton as a one-player team are mistaken.
Chelsea Mitchell averages 6.6 points per game after coming off an injury last season. The Vikings’ starting lineup is rounded out by seniors Carlie Pogue (6-0 center, 12.1 points) and Jasmyn Hardin (5-9 forward, 3.8 points), and junior Corneisha Henderson (5-8 guard, 7.3 points). The top sub is 5-7 senior guard Jada Ballew.
“Everybody focused on Kelsey and knows who Kelsey is,” Phillips said. “The rest of my kids tend to be overlooked a little bit. But [last] Saturday we had four kids in double figures versus Lakota West. When teams say all Princeton has is Kelsey Mitchell, that’s very inaccurate.”