Notre Dame may be short on size, but what it's lacking in height, the Fighting Irish make up for with athleticism. That was apparent in Tuesday’s District 7-AA showdown with Sequatchie County.
The undersized Irish had a difficult time in the half court against the visiting Indians (11-10, 4-4 District 7-AA), especially against their towering front line, but when they opened things up in the third quarter, their opponents simply couldn’t keep up.
Notre Dame (15-9, 4-4 District 7-AA), clinging to a one-point halftime advantage, outscored its opponents 24-14 in the third quarter, then weathered a fourth-quarter run by Sequatchie to capture the 69-56 win, avenging the team’s four-point loss to the Indians on Jan. 8.
“At first we were running, but then at some point we got stuck in the half court,” ND senior Stedmon Ford said. “We had trouble against the zone; that's our weakness, the zone.”
Fighting Irish sophomore Kealey Green scored six points in the game’s opening moments, capping an 8-2 run by laying in a lob pass from Ford with 4:14 remaining in the first quarter. Ford buried a 3-pointer under a minute later, and Kareem Orr added back-to-back layups in transition to put Notre Dame up 15-4
That’s when the Indians slowed things down, though, and it payed off.
Sequatchie’s Tyler Grant buried a contested 3-pointer to spark his teams run, teammate Riley Dempsey added one from in close and Madison Tucker knocked down consecutive buckets to trim the his team’s deficit to 17-14 after one quarter.
“That’s where we’ve been killed; team’s slowing us down,” Notre Dame head coach J.P. Nerbun said. “Once we learn how to beat the zone, we can win a district title. There’s no doubt in my mind, but we’ve got to be able to beat the zone.”
Tucker, who led all scorers with 24, scored nine points in the second quarter, including a layup with one second remaining in the first half to bring his team to within 31-30 at the break.
“(Tucker), fantastic game for him,” Nerbun said. “He absolutely battled all game. Everybody’s hat's off to him. We had a really difficult time stopping him. We did a better job in the second half, but we still couldn’t contain him.”
“The first time we played them he didn’t do that,” said Ford, who was charged with guarding Tucker for most of the night. “I’ve never seen him play like that; he was on.”
Tucker added eight more in the following period, but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep up with the Irish, who turned the third quarter into a track meet.
Ford added his second 3-pointer of the night with 4:55 left in the third to put Notre Dame up five, and Green capped the team’s 14-5 run with a free-throw to complete a three-point play after he was fouled on a strong drive to the basket.
Notre Dame led by as much as 13 early in the fourth quarter, but the Indians fought their way back, mainly by using their size to dominate the offensive glass. Sequatchie’s Justin Hobbs, who finished with 11 points, scored five in the final period — four on put backs — but the big man went 1 for 3 from the free-throw line in the second half.
“We did a good job of keeping them from getting the ball in the post for the most part, and bringing help when they did lob it in,” Nerbun said. “That was good from the front line, but we’ve really got to do a better job of getting rebounds. That really just comes down to heart.”
The Indians came to within 59-55 after a jumper by Dempsey with 5:53 to play, but the Irish outscored them 10-1 the rest of the way. Ford, who scored 16, knocked down 4 of 5 from the stripe in the final 1:04.
Orr finished with a team-high 16 for Notre Dame, Green added 13, and sophomore A.J. Flemister chipped in nine.
The Irish conclude their conference schedule with a pair of home games against Chattanooga Christian School and Signal Mountain before closing out the regular season at Baylor on Feb. 7
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.