By Greg Bates
DE PERE – Both Notre Dame Academy and De Pere have cruised through the first half of the Fox River Classic Conference girls’ basketball schedule.
That was until they had to meet one another.
The two state-ranked teams had their first of two showdowns this season Tuesday, Jan. 11, and early on it looked as though the game was going to be tight until the end.
However, defending Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) Division 2 champion Notre Dame turned a close contest into a runaway victory.
Up three late in the first half, the Tritons’ defense clamped down and allowed just nine points to De Pere during a stretch of more than 17 minutes.
That allowed Notre Dame to pull off a 53-40 win.
“Our defensive effort was tremendous,” Notre Dame Head Coach Sara Rohde said. “We executed our game plan well. They played hard on the defensive end, and that frustrated (De Pere).”
The Tritons have won the last seven meetings between the two schools.
Notre Dame, ranked No. 2 in Division 2 in the latest WisSports.net Coaches Poll, started fast as solid defense turned into offense.
De Pere, ranked No. 6 in Division 1, didn’t have an answer.
“It was important for us to set the tone,” Notre Dame senior Sarah Hardwick said. “We had to come out strong. If we could build our lead, we knew that would be big for us. We had a big defensive mindset, too. Defense is a big part of our game.”
De Pere’s do-everything Jordan Meulemans, who came into the game averaging 25.8 points per game, was held to five first-half points.
She finished with 20 — half her team’s points — scoring the bulk of her points when the outcome of the game was already determined.
“Everything (Meulemans) got she had to work for,” Rohde said. “She’s a player you’ve got to focus on because she is dynamic. Our girls did a good job.”
De Pere committed 11 turnovers, which Head Coach Jeremy Boileau said he didn’t think was too bad against a good Notre Dame defense.
However, the Redbirds couldn’t get their offense going all night.
Claire Bjorge, a 15.5 points per night scorer, had just seven points on three made field goals.
“Our flow on offense was the tough part,” Boileau said. “Notre Dame picks you up full court, and then you’ve got to adjust and run your stuff. We got away from what we needed to do.”
The Tritons were able to do their damage on the inside.
Hardwick finished with a team-leading 14 points.
“We wanted to get (Hardwick) post touches, and I was glad she was aggressive with it,” Rohde said. “Our guards did a nice job of getting her the ball.”
Hardwick and her teammates were scrappy on the offensive glass, giving the team plenty of opportunities each time down the floor.
“Every offensive rebound it felt like they scored,” Boileau said. “Where we did a good job getting a stop, we could secure that rebound.”
Fellow post Gracie Grzesk put in 10 points, and guard Trista Fayta added 12 for Notre Dame.
The Tritons (10-1 overall, 7-0 FRCC) led 20-14 when De Pere’s Claire Bjorge drained her only 3-pointer of the game.
Notre Dame ended the half strong, scoring the final seven points to go into the locker room up, 27-17.
Early in the second, the Redbirds (11-3, 8-1) got baskets from Meulemans and Bjorge to cut it to 29-21, but the Tritons turned it up another notch on both ends of the floor.
Notre Dame went on an 18-5 run — thanks to balance on the inside and outside — to pull ahead, 47-26, with 6:03 remaining in the game.
During the stretch from when De Pere was down three points to going down 21 points, the Redbirds scored only nine points in 17 minutes, 17 seconds.
“We got some stops, and then we got some easy buckets in transition,” Rohde said. “We got (Hardwick) the ball when she was open, rather than try to force the situation. She took advantage of it and capitalized on that. (Fayta) did a nice job of pushing the ball for us and got some easy looks. That opened it up for us.”
The Tritons have now rattled off nine straight victories after suffering its lone loss of the season, falling 63-45 to state-ranked Appleton East Nov. 23.
“That East game was early in the season, so lots of growth has happened,” Hardwick said. “We’re a better team now.”