DAYTON - The 10th Ohio girls' state basketball appearance that was taken from Mount Notre Dame a year ago by the coronavirus pandemic, took place Friday night at the University of Dayton.
The opponent turned out to be the same one the Cougars were in line for in 2020, Toledo Notre Dame Academy. This year the game was played and MND prevailed 59-50 to put themselves in line for an eighth Ohio Division I state title. It was their closest margin of victory since the opening month of the season.
"It was everything that we thought it would be in terms of how competitive it was," Mount Notre Dame coach Dr. Scott Rogers said. "I would expect nothing less. I think it was a matter of wills tonight and I think in the second half our players decided they wanted to get to tomorrow night."
Junior K.K. Bransford led MND with 26 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Senior Laila Phelia had 20 points on 9-of-13 shooting. Senior Autumn Crockett had six points and nine boards off the bench.
The Cougars had their rare experience of trailing in the third quarter but responded later with a 13-0 run that sealed the game.
"We just knew we had to come together," Bransford said. "We always talk about during the bad times we always have to stick together. We started to pick up our talking and that's the way we came together. We started talking more, locating the shooters and locating where Grace (Toledo Notre Dame's top scorer VanSlooten) was. Everything just all came together."
The triumph continues MND's impressive winning streak to 71 games, dating back to Phelia's sophomore season and Bransford's freshman campaign.
"We're all on the same page," Phelia said "We know last year we got cut short because of COVID. I feel like we all just wanted this real bad."
After a 28-0 season was halted prior to their state semifinal last year, MND's Dr. Scott Rogers and crew have been determined to get back to win for those who missed the icing on the cake of an unbeaten season.
Makira Cook and Grace Centrulla were starters last March who saw the rug pulled out from under them. Cook now plays at Dayton, Centrulla at Mercyhurst. Centrulla was at Friday's game while Cook is playing with Dayton in the Atlantic-10 tournament.
"We had so many messages," Rogers said of the return to the state tournament. "Mel Thomas (former MND and Connecticut player) did a video for the girls. We are so blessed to have such great players go through our program. They still touch the girls that are going through it now which I think is what makes it really neat."
With both teams having trouble finding their mark in the bigger well-lit arena, the Cougars and Eagles were even for most of the opening quarter. Off the bench, Cassidy Stainton's 3-pointer gave MND the lead at the quarter pole, 12-9.
The Cougars would jump out 17-11 in the second frame, but Toledo Notre Dame rallied behind a 3-pointer by Olivia Sims and lay-up on a steal by Dekota Smith. The teams traded blows late in the quarter with Phelia answering back a couple of times. Her final shot of the half gave MND the 25-24 lead at the break.
Toledo Notre Dame's VanSlooten got behind the MND zone a few times in the third quarter as the Eagles held brief leads. However, Phelia found the net twice before quarter's end and the Cougars led by five.
To start the fourth, Bransford and Autumn Crockett had lay-ups and quickly MND went up nine. Toledo Notre Dame coach Travis Galloway called timeout, but the Eagles weren't able to stifle the momentum.
Toledo Notre Dame's Emma Hoyt scored at the buzzer to make it a nine-point victory for MND. MND outrebounded the Eagles 35-24 and overcame a 3-for-18 night of 3-point shooting and a troublesome 10-of-20 from the line, which began 1-for-9.
"Big stage," Bransford said grinning behind her mask about the misses. "We had to get used to it. That's pretty much it."
Toledo Notre Dame finishes 16-2 with both losses coming to MND. Junior 6-foot-3 center VanSlooten led the Eagles with 20 points and eight rebounds.
The 27-0 Cougars play Newark in Saturday night's Division I state final at 8:30 at UD Arena where there will surely be a plethora of powder blue.
Both MND and Newark defeated Wayne this season with the Cougars advancing past the Warriors for the district title. Newark's one loss came to North Central out of Indianapolis 48-46, while the Cougars defeated North Central 59-55 on Dec. 5.
This is Newark's third appearance in the Division I state tournament. MND is after its eighth big trophy. Dr. Rogers has four of those titles in two stints as head coach (2004,2006, 2017, 2019). He also assisted on then-coach Dante Harlan's 2007 team that took home the big trophy. Harlan added state championships in 2008 and 2009.
MOUNT NOTRE DAME 12 13 15 19 59
TOLEDO NOTRE DAME 9 15 11 15 50
MND - Wolterman 1 0 2 Phelia 9 2 20 Bransford 9 6 26 Stanely 1 0 2 Crockett 2 2 6 Stainton 1 0 3
TND - King 3 0 8 Sims 2 2 8 Smith 2 0 4 Ray 3 0 8 VanSlooten 8 4 20 Hoyt 1 0 2