If this year’s state girls basketball tournament run has a familiar feel for Notre Dame, there is good reason.
In advancing to today’s 8 p.m. Division I state semifinal at the Schottenstein Center in Columbus, coach Travis Galloway’s unranked Eagles (25-3) have basically retraced their footprints from the tournament trail.
A chance to face second-ranked Kettering Fairmont (25-1), last year’s state runner-up, is only the latest step in Notre Dame’s tourney redeux.
The Eagles lost 54-45 to Fairmont in last year’s semifinal, after having beaten — in order — Clay and Bowsher in the sectionals, Start and Northview in district play, then Perrysburg (at Central Catholic) and Wadsworth (at Norwalk) in the regional.
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To earn today’s rematch with the Firebirds, Notre Dame this year defeated Bowsher then Clay in sectionals, Southview then Northview in district play, then topped Perrysburg at Central in the regional semifinal, and Wadsworth at Norwalk in last Saturday’s regional final.
“It’s pretty ironic,” said Galloway, who is 91-28 in five seasons at ND. “We didn’t realize it until we got to the district, and we said, ‘Wow, we’re on the same road.’ ”
With a lineup drastically revamped because of graduation, ND will see pretty much the same Fairmont team that beat Notre Dame last March.
Fairmont’s top players are 6-foot-2 junior forwards Kathryn Westbeld and Makayla Waterman. Both average 15 points per game, bring a dominant physical presence inside, and have loads of tournament experience.
As freshmen, they helped Fairmont defeat Start in the 2011 D-I state semifinals before falling to Twinsburg in the final. Then as sophomores, they led the Firebirds’ win over Notre Dame. Fairmont lost again to Twinsburg in the 2012 final.
Westbeld averaged 16.5 points and 11 rebounds her freshman and sophomore seasons. Waterman averaged 17 points and 7.5 rebounds those two seasons.
Fairmont senior guards Chelsea Welch (14 points per game) and Alona Skipper (six points per game) also played in 2010 as freshmen when Fairmont lost to Waite in the D-I state semis.
“They’re very talented and experienced, and those two [Waterman and Westbeld] pass the ball to each better than any tandem that I can remember,” Galloway said. “They do a good job of getting themselves in position to score, or defend, before the ball is even in their area.
“Offensively, they work really hard away from the ball, so they’re in good spots to make a play. They’re very intelligent players, and they’re extremely physical.”
Notre Dame counters with a decidedly different lineup than last year.
Four former Eagles starters — guards Cat Wells and Demy Whitaker, and forwards Michelle Holmes and Ashley Kynard — have graduated, as did the top sub, Tylar Young.
The only returning starter for ND is 5-foot-10 junior forward Jayda Worthy (12.1 points). Two current starters — 6-0 senior guard Christy Ohlinger (6.3 points) and 6-1 sophomore center Kaayla McIntyre (10.8 points) — saw just one and five minutes of playing time, respectively, in the 2012 game against Fairmont.
The Eagles’ new starting guards are sophomores — 6-0 Tierra Floyd (11.2 points) and 5-5 Christiana Jefferson (5.8 points). Each will be playing their first minutes at the Schottenstein Center.
“This year, at least, we match up better size-wise,” Galloway said. “Last year, we knew we had to speed the game up, play faster, hope to turn them over, and get some things in transition.
“This time, we have to be just as physical as them, and we’ll have to rebound the ball very well. We’ll have to be able to take away their first and second look defensively, and make them reverse the ball to maybe a third or fourth option. If we can do that, I think we’ll be able to stay in the game.”
Notre Dame was a long shot for a state appearance when this season began. The Eagles opened 0-2 with non-league losses to Gahanna Lincoln and Lewis Center Olentangy at the Reynoldsburg Invitational on Nov. 23-24. When it lost 52-44 to visiting Rogers on Dec. 22, Notre Dame was 6-3.
They have not lost since, and last Saturday’s 43-39 regional final win over Wadsworth was they the Eagles’ 19th straight victory.
Galloway recognizes his team’s role as the underdog, and believes remaining within striking range through three quarters is a must in the Eagles’ quest for an upset.
“As the game goes on, all the pressure will swing to [Fairmont], because this is supposed to be their year,” Galloway said. “Hopefully their kids tighten up late and ours stay loose.”