The Bulldogs, who had outscored their first four postseason opponents by an average of 32.7 points, finally remembered what it felt like to fight for a win when they played Lincoln Prep on Friday in the state semifinals.
The Tigers battled Notre Dame tough for three and a half quarters, and trailed by just five points in the fourth quarter. But Notre Dame finally pulled away and won 67-57 at Mizzou Arena, earning another chance at a state title after losing to Ruskin by three points in the title game last winter.
The Bulldogs (23-6) will play St. Charles West (30-1) in the Class 4 title game today at 2 p.m. at Mizzou Arena. St. Charles West won its semifinal contest against Webb City 62-53 in overtime.
Notre Dame 6-foot-8 center Ryan Willen, who netted a team-high 18 points along with collecting eight rebounds, said it took his team some time to adjust to a close game, even though he and his teammate expected much stiffer competition in the final four.
Not only did Notre Dame dominate its last four postseason games, but it also outscored its last four regular-season opponents by an average of 39 points. The Bulldogs, who have won 14 straight games, had not been in a close contest since Jan. 28, when they beat Central by six points.
The Bulldogs started slow in the first half against Lincoln Prep, trailing by as many as five points more than midway through the second quarter.
Lincoln Prep's Justin Henderson did the most damage against Notre Dame.
Henderson, who averages 17.5 points per game, scored 22 points in the first half alone, including nailing 6-of-8 3-pointers.
Every time it appeared Notre Dame was gaining some momentum, Henderson was there to give the momentum back to Lincoln Prep.
Henderson rallied the Tigers on an 8-2 run over the first 1 minute, 42 seconds of the second quarter as Lincoln Prep took a 23-18 advantage. Henderson scored all eight of his team's points on the run, including nailing two 3-pointers.
The Bulldogs and Tigers were knotted 25-25 with 3:23 remaining in the second quarter. Notre Dame used a 6-0 run over the next 53 seconds to gain its largest lead of the game at that point -- 31-25.
But again Henderson single-handedly brought the momentum back to the Tigers' side, scoring two 3-pointers over the final 1:27 of the second quarter to tie the contest 31-31 heading into the break.
"Any time you hit six 3s in one half, that's going to be a big discussion," Hale said. "He [Henderson] was getting it off of penetration, ... penetration from [Lloyd]. We had to do a better job keeping him contained so we could get back to [Henderson]."
Willen added that the offense struggled moving the basketball in the first half.
"We weren't getting very good ball movement, and we weren't getting the open looks we were the last few games," Willen said.
Notre Dame's Ty Williams said it was important to put more pressure on the Tigers' guards.
"First quarter, I thought we gave them too much respect," Williams said. "They were going right by us and we were just giving too much room. We weren't pressuring them at all. ... Once we got in the game, we got a rhythm going. We got our tempo up. We started pressuring them a lot more. And that's when we started getting them defensively. Stop the penetration and also not allow as many 3s from [Henderson]."
Willen added that his team moved the basketball better in the second half.
The Bulldogs went ahead 50-42 early in the fourth quarter. Lincoln Prep, however, would not quit, coming within five points with 6:06 left. But Notre Dame senior Mark Himmelberg nailed a 3-pointer from the corner to put his team back up by eight points. That basket was the beginning of 13-3 run by the Bulldogs. Notre Dame went on to a 10-point victory from there.
Also playing well for Notre Dame was Austin Greer with 16 points. Williams and John Unterreiner each added 13 points.