NORWALK, Ohio — It was a pretty clear case of déjà vu for the Notre Dame Eagles Saturday in the Division I girls basketball regional final.
Same opponent, same court, same halftime score, same final margin, and the same player hitting the clinching free throws in the final seconds.
Facing sixth-ranked Wadsworth at Norwalk High School, the unranked Eagles (25-3) again trailed 25-22 at the break before rallying down the stretch for a 43-39 victory.
Junior Jayda Worthy — whose two clutch free throws with 5.4 seconds left iced Notre Dame’s 55-51 win over these same Grizzlies last March 10 — calmly sank two at the line with 15 seconds left Saturday to close the scoring, as the Eagles blanked Wadsworth (25-3) over the final 2:27.
“Just like last year I was thinking, ‘Jayda, make the free throws.’ ” Worthy said.
“Having four new starters and still making it back to state is a tribute to how well this team has come together and how much hard work they have put in throughout the season,” Eagles coach Travis Galloway said. “I couldn’t be happier for them.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Notre Dame defeats Wadsworth
The Eagles will play the winner of Saturday’s regional final between second-ranked Kettering Fairmont and third-ranked Centerville in a D-I state semifinal Friday at 8 p.m. at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus.
Fairmont defeated Notre Dame 54-45 in last year’s state semis before losing to Twinsburg in the title game.
“We were just fortunate to gut one out,” Galloway said. “Down the stretch, we were a little more patient, and I thought [Wadsworth] got a little tired. We came up with some stops at the end, and we made some free throws. You take it any way you can get it, and we’re going back to Columbus.”
Notre Dame, which became the second Toledo girls team to reach the state tournament in back-to-back seasons, did so with Worthy as the only returning starter from last year’s 22-5 Eagles team.
A year ago, Tierra Floyd was a bit-part player whose freshman season on the varsity was basically sabotaged by injuries. A year later, Floyd, a versatile 6-foot guard, is Notre Dame’s go-to player.
She had game-highs with 20 points and eight rebounds, as the Eagles won their 19th consecutive game, and 25th out of 26 after an 0-2 start.
“We went into halftime and we weren’t down at all,” Floyd said. “We knew it was just a one-possession game, and we came out with the attitude that we knew we could win the game.
“We knew they were a very good 3-point-shooting team, and it showed at the beginning. We had to tighten up on defense, and that’s what we did.
“It feels great. I love that we were able to do this two years straight.”
Kaayla McIntyre, a 6-0 sophomore forward, contributed 11 points and five rebounds. Worthy added 10 points and six rebounds, including five of ND’s seven boards in the crucial fourth quarter, when she also hit all four of her free-throw attempts in the final 36.8 seconds.
To get a handle on the Grizzlies, the Eagles first had to get a handle on Wadsworth’s 5-11 senior guard Kristen Schroeder, who was on fire in the early going.
When Schroeder hit a 15-footer from the left wing with 6:12 left in the second quarter, she capped her own personal 8-0 run to open that period, giving Wadsworth a 20-16 lead.
At that point, Schroeder (14 points) had already hit four of her five 3-point attempts. Over the game’s final 21:48, Schroeder got off only two more shots and did not score again.
But Wadsworth took this year’s 25-22 halftime lead and bumped it to five points when Rachel Goddard sank two free throws to open the third-quarter scoring.
Worthy had re-entered the game after drawing two early fouls and sitting the final 9:37 of the first half, and that’s when the Eagles began turning the tide.
Floyd hit one of her three 3-pointers in the game, and McIntyre’s inside bucket tied the score at 27. Following a Floyd free throw, Worthy’s up-and-under layup closed an 8-0 surge that gave ND a 30-27 lead.
But Wadsworth pulled even at 32 entering the final quarter and took its final lead on two free throws from Haley Hassinger (nine points) with 2:27 to play.
The Eagles secured their state semifinal berth thanks to the four Worthy free throws, plus one in between from McIntyre as the Grizzlies missed their final four shots from the field.
“It was very disappointing,” Worthy said of her foul trouble, “but I just kept cheering my teammates on from the bench and trusted that they’d keep us in a good position.
“We just had to come out and play harder than we did in the first half. We were tired at the end, and we just had to push through, stay in character, and stay with our strengths — defense and hustling and getting rebounds.”
Notre Dame was more efficient offensively in the game, hitting 14 of 31 shots (45 percent) from the field, compared to 14 of 41 (34 percent) for Wadsworth.
The Eagles were 12 of 19 at the line, outrebounded the Grizzlies 31-19, and committed 15 turnovers. Wadsworth was 6 of 8 at the line and had 10 trunovers.
Central Catholic (1998 and 1999) was the other Toledo girls team to reach two straight state semifinals.
“Wadsworth is a team that keeps attacking you,” Galloway said, “and I thought our kids did a good job early on of weathering their storm. They had a run in the second quarter where the game could’ve gotten away from us. But our kids stayed together and grinded it out and came away with the win.”
“People had doubts about us and didn’t think we would be here,” Worthy said. “But we played our game, proved people wrong, and it just feels great to be in this position right now. I couldn’t be happier.”
Contact Steve Junga at: email@example.com, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.