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Big run propels Notre Dame over Freedom

By Greg Bates

GREEN BAY – The Notre Dame Academy boys’ basketball team had to shake off some jitters early in its postseason opener.

But once they got rolling, the Tritons looked like a well-oiled machine.

Trailing by two late in the first half, Notre Dame used a 16-0 run that carried over into the second half and propelled it to a 63-51 victory over Freedom in a Division 2 regional semifinal Friday night.

“It shows how hard we work,” Notre Dame senior Danny Nennig said. “We work every day, and we showed them what we are. But it’s one step of six. We’ve got a game (Saturday against Ashwaubenon), and we’ve got to play even harder.”

Notre Dame head coach AJ Alexander said his team is playing its best ball right now, winning six of its last nine games.

The Tritons, which were ranked No. 9 in Division 2 in the final regular-season WisSports.net Coaches Poll, got prepared for tournament time through a grueling schedule.

“We’ve been calling this whole time our ‘March mode basketball,’” Alexander said. “That’s what we want to do. We want to continue to play ‘March mode basketball.’”

No. 2-seeded Notre Dame had a back-and-forth first 12 minutes against No. 3-seeded Freedom.

The Irish (19-5) took a 19-17 lead on a 3-pointer by Jaden Behnke with 5:48 remaining before halftime.

Notre Dame (17-8) responded with a 10-0 run, highlighted by an old-fashioned 3-point play by Daniel Hornacek followed by a 3-point shot by Garrett Grzesk that brought the home team into the locker room up 27-19.

“I preach to our guys to say this slogan, ‘Pressure, feet, repeat,’” Alexander said. “Daniel Hornacek started with that pressure and pressing their point guard a ton. That pressure led to some quickly-contested shots. When any shot goes up, we preach a one-and-done mentality that we box and we grab it and we go. Our guys brought the pressure for that run. That contributed to our run we had.”

Coming out of halftime, Chris Mitchell had a layup and Nennig tallied four points to push Notre Dame’s run to 16-0 and balloon its lead to 14 points.

That stretch flipped the game in Notre Dame’s favor.

“We started to do what we do and run fastbreak well,” Nennig said. “We made a bunch of layups and shots started opening up. Once we got up, we put our feet down and our defense got good down the stretch.”

Freedom cut its deficit to 10 points, 55-45, with 4:48 remaining, but Notre Dame closed on the victory.

Nennig scored a team-high 15 points for the Tritons, while Grzesk added 14, and Mitchell and Hornacek put in eight points apiece.

Notre Dame held a good shooting Freedom squad in check.

After hitting three of its first four shots of the game, the Irish shot under 30% the rest of the first half.

Landon VanCalster had a game-high 17 points but hit only five field goals.

“We had on our scouting report today, all closeouts on all players on this team are mandatory, with high hands consistently,” Alexander said. “On our first timeout, that was one of the first things I had to say when they hit one of their first 3s was, ‘They’re in our hands.’ It comes down to our guys committing to those little things, like a closeout on every guy, and they showed that as the game went on we could get those done.”

Notre Dame now has a big test in a regional final at rival Ashwaubenon tonight.

The Jaguars, ranked No. 7 in the state, are coming off a 70-53 victory over New London in their postseason opener.

In two conference games this season, Ashwaubenon (19-5) beat Notre Dame by an average of 11 points per game.

Most recently, the Jaguars pulled off a 73-66 victory Feb. 2.

“Our guys know they have the hunger, but (Saturday), we’ve got to be ready to execute,” Alexander said. “We can’t falter on our personnel and our matchups, because Ashwaubenon has guys who can knock down shots. Offensively, we have to be able to execute against their 2-3 zone consistently. When they show their man, we still need to be ready to bring it up and down the court as quick as possible and get to the rim like we do.”

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