FRANKFORT, Kentucky — Having already knocked off two of the best girls basketball teams in Indiana this season, Columbus North felt confident going into its battle with one of Kentucky’s finest on Saturday afternoon.
The Bull Dogs needed a half of basketball to find their rhythm and about 3½ quarters before finally shaking a pesky Franklin County (Kentucky) team for a 50-40 victory in the opener of the Kentucky-Indiana Challenge Cup at the Frankfort (Kentucky) Convention Center.
In a game that featured 10 lead changes and five ties, North, ranked No. 2 in Class 4A in Indiana, used a 9-0 fourth-quarter run to break a 36-36 tie and pull away from the Flyers, who are ranked No. 2 in Kentucky by MaxPreps.
“At the end, we just knew we had to get points and stops, so we all came together, we were all on the same page, and we got the lead and we kept it,” said North’s Maliah Howard-Bass, who scored a game-high 25 points.
Howard-Bass sparked the game-deciding run with a 3-pointer at the 4:02 mark and a basket a little more than a minute later. Imani Guy and Howard-Bass then each converted one-and-ones to give the Bull Dogs (17-0) a 45-36 lead with 1:42 remaining.
Paige Littrell hit 3 of 4 free throws in the final 1:30, and Ashlyn Huffman sank a pair with seven seconds left to ice it.
“We knew what we had to do,” said Littrell, who finished with 11 points. “We knew that they were going to try and foul us, and we had to be strong with it. I think we just played our game.”
North was off its game a little in the first half when it went 7 of 31 from the field. The Bull Dogs missed numerous point-blank shots and layups and were tied with Franklin County (12-2) 20-20 at halftime.
“I think the first half, we moved the ball well and did some good things and defended well,” North coach Pat McKee said. “We just missed shots. It’s like we were rushing them a little, and the background was a little different. It’s more of an arena setting than a school gym setting.”
The Bull Dogs’ three main perimeter shooters — Howard-Bass, Littrell and Huffman — were a combined 11 of 36 from the field in the cavernous atmosphere.
“The scenery is different,” Howard-Bass said. “You don’t have the same depth perception that you usually would. Some of us shot long, so we just had to find a way to get to the basket.”
That included Littrell.
“I wasn’t hitting tonight, but I tried as hard as I could to do other things, try and get to the basket more than I usually do,” Littrell said. “My shot just was not falling tonight, but sometimes that happens.”
Emily Kim made her first career start in place of Elle Williams, who was sick and did not accompany the team to Frankfort on Friday night. Williams did make it on Saturday, however, and came off the bench to grab nine rebounds and lead North to a 35-25 advantage on the boards.
“Down the stretch was like regular Elle,” McKee said. “The adrenaline got going, and she found the level today.”
Meanwhile, the Bull Dogs held Princess Stewart, who came in averaging more than 18 points a game and has been drawing Division I interest, to eight points, four of which came in the final 1:33 after the game had been decided. North also held Western Kentucky recruit Malaka Frank to four points.
“We didn’t play great, but we played good enough, and all things considered, with three games this week and seven games in 12 days, I think it’s remarkable how these girls stepped up over and over,” McKee said.
As a result, North remained unbeaten this season and ran its overall winning streak to 42.
“We went out there, and we just had fun,” Littrell said. “I think every single girl could tell you that they had fun today.”