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Published: Sunday, 3/4/2012

COMMENTARY

Winning final game no easy task

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Jerry Sigler has coached girls basketball for 36 years, 650-plus wins worth. But in all of those years and through all of those games, his Northview teams have never won their last game of a season.

"It's hard," he said Saturday night at Perrysburg. "It's very hard. A team needs a lot of luck, a great draw, and to be injury-free. Everything has to fall right."

Recent Toledo powerhouses know of what Sigler speaks. Teams from the City League advanced to the state tournament in Columbus in each of the last four seasons. None of them won their final game.

Maybe Notre Dame Academy, a former City League team that became the first Three Rivers Athletic Conference champ this season, will find a way.

The Eagles turned aside an undermanned but game Northview team 54-43 to win a Division I district crown Saturday night. ND is two wins from Columbus and four wins from, well, a final win.

Travis Galloway, the Eagles' coach, is a young pup compared to Sigler. But he knows too.

"There are 16 Division I teams left, and we're fortunate to be one of them," Galloway said. "But only one wins the last one. We talk all the time about how we want to remember that last game. But, yeah, it's hard. And it gets harder now.

"I probably shouldn't even talk about that. We have to beat Perrysburg next. We're just excited to keep playing."

Notre Dame is still playing thanks to defense. A team that averaged 82 points while winning its first three tournament games by an average of 56 points -- and, no, that's not a misprint -- was going to do nothing of the sort against a team of Northview's caliber.

Miriam Justinger, a senior, scored 23 points and played to the point of exhaustion for the Cats, but with senior guard Skylar Rose out with a knee injury and three freshmen in the starting lineup, Justinger was the only proven ball-handler.

So Notre Dame pressed, and then pressed some more.

Demy Whitaker is usually a dead-eye shooter from 3-point range for the Eagles, but Northview defended the arc well and she notched just one trey while scoring seven points. On defense, however, her steals and deflections in ND's full-court press accounted for seven of Northview's 22 turnovers.

"The press was a huge factor," Whitaker said. "We weren't sure about it at the beginning and Northview hardly missed, but then it started to work and that's what won the game. Our mentality was to press, knock the ball loose, and push it on offense.

"I just read Miriam's eyes, tried to stay patient, and anticipate when she'd reverse the ball. They didn't have one of their top ball-handlers, and we had to use it to our advantage."

Northview led by one at the half and was within 26-24 midway through the third quarter. But Notre Dame's Ashley Kynard hit a shot over the Cats' taller frontline, Whitaker made a steal and fed Cat Wells for a layup, Whitaker made another steal and scored herself, and the Eagles were off and running.

When Whitaker finally made a 3-pointer early in the fourth quarter it bumped ND into a double-digit lead.

The Eagles played a schedule this season meant to prepare them for a tournament run. They are 20-4 and all four losses came to state-ranked teams, three on the road and one at a neutral site.

"That definitely paid off tonight," Galloway said. "We were down at halftime but I told the girls that we'd been in battles like this before against the top teams in the state. We didn't win those, but it helped us win this one and that was the idea."

The press played a big part in it. So did Notre Dame's ability to rebound with the taller Wildcats, especially in the second half.

"I think we made it a much better game than people might have expected," Sigler said. "But Notre Dame is very, very good. They're very unselfish. They do everything well."

The outcome and the way it was orchestrated -- defense and board work -- should only add to the momentum of the Eagles' tournament run. They have a shot.

But nothing is easy now. As Sigler will tell you, and as he and his Cats found out again Saturday, winning the last game can be elusive.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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