By Dan Wright
HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – Prior to Saturday night’s 9th Region semifinal game with Highlands, Notre Dame head coach Wyatt Foust asked senior reserve Avery Henderson to come up with a motivational slogan the Pandas could rely on to pull them through.
While neither Foust nor Henderson seemed to be able to remember what her acronym, F.I.G.H.T., stood for, the Pandas were able to rely on Henderson’s four points in just two minutes of play to defeat Highlands, 46-39, at the Bank of Kentucky Center and get the Pandas into Sunday’s regional final against Newport Central Catholic.
“Every postseason game we have a different person, generally a senior, who gives us an acronym,” said Foust. “It’s something we go back to during a timeout. Tonight it was Avery Henderson, so it was great karma.”
Henderson did not enter the game until after starting junior center Haylee Smith picked up her third foul with four minutes left in the third quarter, with the ensuing free throws pulling Highlands to within a point, 24-23.
Henderson promptly hit a baseline jumper to end a five-point Highlands run and later re-entered the game to hit two free throws to extend the Pandas lead to 35-28 with 2:42 remaining.
“I was scared, but I was ready to help the team out any way that I could,” Henderson said.
Said Smith: “Avery, she’s probably the person on the team that best keeps us together. She keeps us focused and keeps our energy up and her being able to come on the floor and knock down those two key free throws, it just keeps us going.”
Henderson’s effort was needed, because both teams struggled to make shots. Notre Dame made 16 of 40 field goals (40-percent) and just 2 of 12 3-pointers (16.7 percent) while Highlands made 11 of 41 from the field (26.8 percent), including 2 of 10 3-pointers (20 percent).
Those percentages were even lower at halftime, when Notre Dame held a 17-15 advantage.
“We had an extremely rough first half,” Foust said. “Shots weren’t falling. We come out (in the second half), we shared the ball a little bit better, we moved the ball, and we hit an inside out three to open up the half. I thought that was huge.”
Junior guard Sydney Stallman’s first 3-pointer gave Notre Dame a 24-18 lead in the third quarter, and her second came after Henderson’s lone basket to put the Pandas ahead, 29-23.
A three-point play by sophomore center McKenzie Leigh brought Highlands back to within three, 29-26, by the end of the third quarter, but Notre Dame started the fourth quarter on a 12-4 run, making 8 of 9 free throws in that time.
“It (foul shooting) has kind of been a thing all year that’s hurt us,” Foust said. “We went back to the drawing board basically and one at a time pulled the kids aside and did different things as far as how we approached the free throw line, because we were probably shooting around 50 percent through Christmas. We knew to win in the postseason that had to change and it has. It’s all on the kids. They’ve worked hard.”
In all, Notre Dame made 11 of 15 free throws in the fourth quarter, starting with the two by Henderson with 2:42 remaining, and 12 of 16 for the game.
Despite her foul trouble, Smith shared top-scoring honors with Stallman for Notre Dame, with both scoring 10 points. Senior guards Elly Ogle and Paige Kellam followed with nine and eight points, respectively.
“It was tough mentally just to keep myself in there with the foul trouble, but I knew my teammates were going to pick me up and it would be OK,” said Smith, who also had nine rebounds. “We just played together and that’s why we won.”
Leigh led Highlands with 20 points, including nine of 11 from the foul line, followed by 10 points from junior Alex Combs. Leigh and Combs also pulled down nine rebounds apiece.
Notre Dame is now within one game of repeating as 9th Region champion, needing to win in Sunday’s final against Newport Central Catholic at 6 p.m. to accomplish the feat.
The Pandas beat NewCath, 39-26, on Feb. 13, and Foust said Notre Dame will be prepared should today’s final be another low-scoring contest.
“We’ve got to play our style of basketball. That’s what it comes down to,” Foust said. “If you have a bad night, defensive travels, and we’re a defensive team.”
NOTRE DAME 11-6-12-17—46
NOTRE DAME (22-8): Stallman 3 2 10, Ogle 3 3 9, Kellam 2 4 8, Clemons 2 1 5, Smith 5 0 10, Henderson 1 2 4. Totals 16 12 46.
HIGHLANDS (23-8): Coffey 2 0 4, Graves 0 2 2, Leigh 5 9 20, Combs 4 1 10,Barth 0 1 1, Blanton 0 2 2. Totals 11 15 39.
3-pointers: N—Stallman 2. H—Leigh, Combs.