Cincinnati MND made history last year by becoming the first Division I team to win three straight state titles. The Cougars are back in the Final Four and looking to become only the second team in any Division to win four straight titles. Canton McKinley, Lakota West and Toledo Start are out to stop them.
Memories are short in sports and West Chester Lakota West’s memory might be the shortest.
Lakota West fell to Cincinnati-area rival Mount Notre Dame 69-67 in the Division I state title game last season on a controversial, last second shot.
The Lady Firebirds are back in the state Final Four with a potential rematch with MND in the state championship game looming on the horizon in the 34th Annual Girls Basketball State Tournament.
But Canton McKinley and Toledo Start are looking to play the spoilers as both are in the hunt for their first girls state basketball championship.
Cats And Dogs
As sure as the winter turns to spring this time of year, MND is headed to Columbus to compete for a girls basketball state championship.
The Cougars (25-1) are making their sixth straight appearance in the Final Four and are on the prowl for a record fourth straight Division I title
No. 1 MND has made the state tournament seven times in school history and claims four state championships overall.
But third-year head coach Dante Harlan sees a difference in his team this season from prior years.
“This team is different from last year because last year I had a couple of established leaders and that was the biggest difference this year was trying to find a true leader,” he explained. “Finally, we decided to do it collectively and not have one individual kid that is responsible for everybody.
“It seems like it has worked out and this team is finally starting to find its own identity.”
Headlining the MND roster this season is senior center and University of Southern California recruit Kendall Hackney. A three-year starter, Hackney averages 13 points per game and was named Division I co-player of the year.
“Kendall has been my most consistent player on the offensive end in the second half of the season,” said Harlan. “Kendall is an inside-out kid and can get you both ways.”
Vanderbilt recruit and senior wing Gabby Smith earned All-Ohio Special Mention honors with 11.7 points per game this season.
“Gabby has probably become our most complete player if you look at every statistic,” Harlan said. “She is another kid that will probably play her best game in a big game situation.”
Senior point guard and Ohio recruit Ashley Fowler chipped in 6.7 points this season.
“Ashley has had a great season and I think she has proved to people she is capable of scoring,” Harlan said. “She worked really hard over the summer to improve her pull-up jumper. She is a big game player and without her we wouldn’t be where we’re at. She is probably the most overlooked kid we’ve ever had in our program.
“She is the coach on the court and (she) and I are typically on the same page. She knows exactly what I want.”
Senior guard Evy Iacono netted 4.2 points this season while sophomore Kathryn Reynolds contributed 9.4 points, respectively.
The youngster Reynolds laid in the winning bucket at the horn in last season’s state title game win over Lakota West.
“She has really come into her own and understands her importance,” said Harlan said about Reynolds. “She is a kid that if you leave her open she is going to (make the shot) and right now she is in a really good flow.”
Senior guard Maria Redwine is the first player Harlan looks to off the bench if any of his starters get into foul trouble.
“Right now I feel like they are playing the best basketball they have played all season,” Harlan said of his squad.
MND will face Canton McKinley in the semifinals Friday at Ohio State’s Value City Arena at 6 p.m.
“I don’t know a whole lot about (McKinley),” said Harlan. “But they rely a lot on their defensive pressure very similar to what we do. The team that controls the pace and tempo of the game, I am thinking will be the team that comes out on top.”
The No. 12 Lady Pups (22-3) are in the Final Four for the third time in school history and are looking for their first state title.
“We did not expect to be here so this is certainly a pleasant surprise for us,” McKinley head coach Pamela Davis said. “We graduated three seniors that were in our starting lineup so we had to replace huge holes for us.”
Freshman phenom Ameryst Alston led McKinley in scoring this season with 14.5 points from the guard position earning All-Ohio first team recognition.
“She has been our main rock for this whole, entire season,” said Davis. “She shoots the three but her game is more midrange and driving to the basket.”
Senior Orlandriea Kirksey nets 12 points per game off the bench. She sunk a three-point shot with four seconds left in the regional final against Twinsburg to lift the Lady Pups to the Final Four.
Junior guard Sydnee Penn added 10 points per contest for the Lady Pups but gets the job done on both ends of the court, according to Davis.
“(Penn) is our defensive specialist,” she said.
In the post, sophomore forward Laneisha Lennon is good for nine points per game.
“(Lennon) has upped her average through the postseason to about 11 points per game and 10 rebounds a game,” Davis said.
Senior forward Justina Owens chips in three points per game and senior guard Shauntiva Humphries adds two points, respectively.
“We’re small and quick and by far the smallest team D-I team in the tournament that is left,” said Davis. “But we are going to try and push tempo and pace and try to create some offense out of our defense.
Davis knows exactly what her squad is up against when they take the floor against MND Friday evening.
“When we play Mount Notre Dame, it is obviously going to be a huge game,” said Davis, who led Barberton to the state Final Four in 2004. “They returned a veteran lineup of seven seniors so we’re going to have huge steps to try and conquer them.
“I think (our players) know the history of Mount Notre Dame and the recent state championships they have brought to their school. But my team is not willing to back down and we certainly are not going to back down. We’re going to give everything that we have and hopefully it will be a competitive game.”
Something Old, Something New
Lakota West (24-2) avenged a regular season loss to Dublin Coffman in the regional finals to return to the Final Four for the second straight season.
“As far as reaching the Final Four again, I think that should be a long term goal for every team as they end their previous season,” head coach Andy Fishman said. “So, it was certainly a goal that we had out there. We knew there were going to have to be steps taken along the way to get ourselves in position to get back to state.”
The No. 5 Lady Firebirds had an opportunity get a bit of revenge with MND this season but fell to the Cougars in a 49-38 contest in mid-January for Lakota West’s only other loss.
“Every season brings new challenges,” said Fishman. “I believe it is quite an honor to have the opportunity to be playing in the state championship so we try and focus our girls on the things that we can control. You just try and put your girls in the most comfortable position to succeed and let them settle it on the court.”
Senior post Alexis Rogers led the team in scoring this season with 15.1 points per game as well as rebounding earning the Duke recruit All-Ohio Special Mention recognition.
She scored 24 points in the state title game loss last season.
“(Rogers) is a dynamic playmaker at both ends of the floor and is dangerous every place on the floor,” Fishman said. “She is special.”
Wing Tessa Elkins, a Murray State recruit, is good for 9.8 points per game.
“(Elkins) is a bundle of energy,” said Fishman. “She has an incredible vertical and can rebound like a power forward. She can pull off her jump shot in traffic and takes it to the basket hard. She gets a lot touches defensively for us.”
Senior post Brittany Harriel nets 7.4 points a game and is a Southeast Missouri State recruit.
“(Harriel) is a prime example of a young lady who was ready when her time came (to start) and she has been a great program player for us excelling at every level,” said Fishman. “This year, she totally seized the opportunity to get some major varsity minutes.”
Rounding out the starting lineup, junior wing Kindsay Brandt contributes 5.7 points and senior wing Brigit Reder adds 3.3 points, respectively. Reder played basketball her sophomore season but had to sit out last season with a back injury that she sustained playing soccer. She is a Ball State soccer recruit.
But Lakota West is as deep as any team in the Final Four with junior forward Tayler DeMaio, freshman center Olivia Wrencher, freshman forward Tazzie Shaw, junior guard Rylee Fishman, sophomore guard Devyn Ciotti and freshman guard Bari Schwartz all seeing time on the floor for the Lady Firebirds.
Start (21-3) is making its first Final Four appearance but Fishman is familiar with the No. 11 Spartans having coached several of its players in the summer and at camps.
“We know they are fantastic,” he said. “We know that their starting five can match up with not only some of the best starting five in Ohio but starting fives throughout the country.
“At this stage of the game, your girls better be able to bring it full court and half court and be able to take advantage of what the other team is trying to do to slow you down.”
Said Start head coach Bob Brown: “I think we thought we had a chance (to get to the Final Four). “I think we feel we are better this year than we were last year so it was definitely a dream of ours and definitely something we thought we had a chance at.”
Lone senior starter Yolanda Richardson highlights the Start squad. The Toledo recruit earned first team All-Ohio honors with 15 points per game.
“(Richardson) has been tremendous for us and has been very powerful inside,” said Brown. “She has been our leader from day one.”
Sophomore guard Maleeka Kynard is the second leading scorer for the Spartans with 13.0 points per game.
“(Kynard) has been good for us all year and I think she is one of the best guards in the tournament and hopefully she will play that way,” Brown said.
Netting nine points per contest for Start is freshman guard Jaymie Jackson as well as sophomore center Azia Bishop.
Junior guard Tiffani Blackman adds five points per game but has dealt with injury throughout the season.
“Adding Tiffani back has definitely given us some mental toughness,” Brown said. “She has been a shot in the arm for us and she takes us to the highest level as far as being as good as we can be.”
Brown knows what his squad is up against taking on the defending state runner-up in the semifinals.
“(Lakota West) is definitely going to come to play because I am sure the feel they have a legit shot at a state championship, which they do,” said Brown.
“They are a great team. We’ve had a chance to watch them three times so we kind of know some of the things they try to do. But we’re going to do our best, I know that. We’re going to bring our ‘A-game’ because if I think if you don’t bring your ‘A-game’ down here, you’re done.”
Division I State Basketball Tournament Vitals
Friday, March 20
Mount Notre Dame vs. Canton McKinley, 6:00 p.m.
West Chester Lakota West vs. Toledo Start, 8:00 p.m.
Saturday, March 21
Division I Championship: 8:30 p.m.
Mount Notre Dame (25-1)
Girls Enrollment: 563
Final ‘09 Ranking: 1st
State Appearances: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 1989
Head Coach: Dante Harlan
School Rec.: 74-7 (3 yrs.)
PPG: 60.2; OPP: 37.0
W 44 Gabby Smith, 5-11, Sr., 11.7 ppg
C 21 Kendall Hackney, 6-2, Sr., 13.0 ppg
G 23 Ashley Fowler, 5-6, Sr., 6.7 ppg
G 32 Kathryn Reynolds, 5-7, So., 9.4 ppg
G 5 Evy Iacono, 5-7, Sr., 4.2 ppg
Canton McKinley (22-3)
Nickname: Lady Pups
Girls Enrollment: 590
Final ‘09 Ranking: 12th
State Appearances: 2009, 1995, 1984
Head Coach: Pamela Davis
School Rec.: 57-14 (3 yrs.)
PPG: 68.1; OPP: 38.4
F 24 Laneisha Lennon, 5-9, So., 9.0 ppg
F 32 Justina Owens, 5-7, Sr., 3.0 ppg
G 14 Ameryst Alston, 5-9, Fr., 14.5 ppg
G 20 Sydnee Penn, 5-7, Jr., 10.0 ppg
G 12 Shauntiva Humphries, 5-3, Sr., 2.0 ppg
Lakota West (24-2)
Location: West Chester
Girls Enrollment: 974
Final ‘09 Ranking: 5th
State Appearances: 2009, 2008
Head Coach: Andy Fishman
School Rec.: 202-82 (12 yrs.)
PPG: 56.8; OPP: 34.4
W 1 Tessa Elkins, 5-6, Sr., 9.8 ppg
W 22 Brigit Reder, 5-8, Sr., 3.3 ppg
W 21 Kindsay Brandt, 5-7, Jr., 5.7 ppg
P 32 Alexis Rogers, 6-1, Sr., 15.1 ppg
P 3 Brittany Harriel, 6-0, Sr.,7.4 ppg
Girls Enrollment: 612
Final ‘09 Ranking: 11th
State Appearances: 2009
Head Coach: Robert Brown
School Rec.: 54-12 (3 yrs.)
PPG: 56.0; OPP: 35.0
F 21 Tiffani Blackman, 5-8, Jr., 5.0 ppg
C 33 Yolanda Richardson, 6-1, Sr., 15.0 ppg
C 50 Azia Bishop, 6-2, So., 9.0 ppg
G 12 Maleeka Kynard, 5-6, So., 13.0 ppg
G 23 Jaymie Jackson, 5-9, Fr., 9.0 ppg
Semifinals: Mount Notre Dame over Canton McKinley; Lakota West over Toledo Start
Finals: MND over Lakota West