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Undefeated Mount Notre Dame basketball team prepares for the state tournament in Columbus

Posted at 12:00 PM, Mar 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-10 12:00:53-04

READING, Ohio — The Mount Notre Dame basketball program is making its 10th appearance in the state tournament this week.

But, you'd be hard-pressed to find any player or coach dwelling on the past success in Columbus.

"Nothing prepares you for walking on that floor in the first game," MND coach Dr. Scott Rogers said. "That's the great thing about it. I don't care if it was the 20th time. I am so proud of each team based on their own merits to get there. It's so hard to do."

MND (28-0), ranked No. 3 nationally in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25, plays Toledo Notre Dame Academy (24-3) in a Division I state semifinal at 8 p.m. Friday at St. John Arena in Columbus.

The winner plays either Newark (26-2) or Canton GlenOak (20-7) in the state final at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at St. John Arena.

This week marks the first time the state girls basketball tournament returns to St. John Arena since 2005 when MND was a D-I state runner-up.

MND is tied with Pickerington Central (including old Pickerington High School) and Columbus Africentric Early College as the only Ohio schools to win seven state girls basketball titles. (Columbus Africentric Early College (21-4) plays Anna (22-6) in a Division III state semifinal at 3 p.m. Friday).

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Rogers, who has led the Cougars to four state titles as a head coach and one as an assistant, is proud of how this year's team has persevered through a very difficult schedule.

"There is so many great teams and coaches," Rogers said after the regional final. "Our kids have just a knack of believing."

MND, the reigning D-I state champion, has won 44 consecutive games entering Friday night. The Cougars completed their first undefeated regular season (22-0) since the program's first state championship in 2003-04, according to Rogers.

But, the Cougars have been challenged multiple times this season including the regional final against Kettering Fairmont when they trailed by 11 points at the end of the first quarter.

Still, the Cougars didn't panic. They relied on their chemistry and experience in the second half.

"All these young ladies are team first," Rogers said. "I don't think you get here unless everyone has bought into that."

MND, which averages 68.6 points and allows 37.1 points, is led by several players including sophomore guard KK Bransford (20.2 points per game), who reached 1,000 career points March 7.

"Everybody knows that she is a special player," Rogers said.

Senior point guard Makira Cook (University of Dayton signee) averages 17.6 points. She has a been a leader for the Cougars all season.

"Makira Cook has just matured into a wonderful point guard," Rogers said.

Junior guard Laila Phelia (13.9 ppg.), senior forward Grace Centrulla (Mercyhurst University signee) and sophomore forward Abby Wolterman are among the other starters. Centrulla had nine points, seven rebounds and two assists against Fairmont including a clutch second-half performance.

Junior forward Autumn Crockett (four points and six rebounds in the regional final) and junior Cassidy Stainton are among the other significant contributors.

All the players understand how rewarding the journey has been to Columbus this winter.

"It's so special," said Cook. "It means so much to me."

Toledo Notre Dame, ranked No. 7 in the season's final Associated Press statewide poll, is making its seventh state tournament appearance in the past nine seasons.

"We have to play extremely well," Toledo Notre Dame coach Travis Galloway said. "We have to do a good job of understanding what their strengths are and hopefully finding weaknesses come Friday night. They're extremely well coached first and foremost. Obviously they have very talented players."

The Eagles are led by 6-foot-2 sophomore Grace VanSlooten (15.6 ppg.), junior guard Olivia Sims (12 ppg.) and senior guard Ray Armstrong (10.4 ppg.).

Rogers expects a significant challenge from Toledo Notre Dame on Friday night.

"I expect their ultimate best," Rogers said. "I expect it will be a battle and it always has been when we played. I expect no different."