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This was supposed to be somebody else’s time.

When Columbus North won the Class 4A girls basketball state championship a year ago, it was supposed to be a one-shot deal.

With Miss Basketball Ali Patberg taking her talents to South Bend, the Bull Dogs’ chances of getting back to Bankers Life in 2016 were slim to none.

And any slim chances there had been surely evaporated when starting point guard Ashlyn Huffman went down with a torn meniscus during the regional final, right?

Right?

Wrong.

Against all odds, the Bull Dogs are back. And if they have their way, they’ll be going back to back.

Do you believe?

The first step in making a return trip to state is actually believing you can do so. For this year’s Bull Dogs, building that confidence was a gradual process.Assistant coach Ron Patberg believed it right away, telling the team at their postseason banquet that they would repeat.

That helped plant the seeds of belief, but it took seeing some results.

For head coach Pat McKee, there were three points in the past year that stand out.

The first of those was the final weekend of June, when the team excelled during a summer tournament at Gibson Southern.

That wasn’t necessarily enough to make the coach think he had a repeat state champion on his hands, but he felt confident at that point that North would be pretty good again.

The second — and the point at which most of the girls seemed to start believing another title run could happen — was on Nov. 28, when a buzzer-beating layup from Maliah Howard-Bass lifted the Bull Dogs to a 46-44 victory over Lawrence North, which had come in as the state’s top-ranked team.

“I think after we beat Lawrence North, that was the mental breakthrough,” Howard-Bass said. “’Wow, we are as good, and we can do this.’”

The third was when Columbus North won its own holiday tournament in December, beating a then-unbeaten Penn team 67-52. McKee recalls being impressed with the level his team played at that week; the fact that the Kingsmen happened to be the opponent in the title game was mere coincidence.

By that point, just about everyone had been convinced that the Bull Dogs were again for real — and as the wins piled up, talk of a potential unbeaten season began to spread around town.

North had closed the 2014-15 season with 25 consecutive victories, and the streak reached 44 — tied for the 10th longest in state history — before the Bull Dogs finally stumbled in a 61-57 defeat at Heritage Christian on Jan. 19.

While nobody in the program wanted to lose, going unbeaten was never North’s primary goal. And in some ways, the loss might have been just what the doctor ordered.

“Losing that game wasn’t all bad,” McKee said. “It showed there is consequence for mistakes or poor play.”

“I think losing did do something to us,” senior guard Paige Littrell added. “It just made us realize that there’s going to be a lot that goes into winning a state championship if we want to do it again.

“We know what it feels like to lose, and we don’t want to do it again.”

Stirred, not shaken

The Bull Dogs haven’t felt the sting of defeat again since. They rolled into the postseason with a 22-1 record and put on a defensive clinic in winning sectional games against Columbus East and Bloomington South.North limited the Olympians and Panthers to 42 and 35 points, respectively, and held each without a field goal for a stretch of at least 10 minutes.

“Our defense was so incredible,” Huffman said of the sectional, “and it was just like, ‘If we play like this every game, nobody’s going to stop us.’”

In the regional semifinal, Center Grove nearly did. The upstart Trojans, who came into the postseason with a losing record, had a 14-point second-half lead on North’s home floor before the Bull Dogs prevailed in overtime.

Later that night, Huffman went down with her knee injury just seconds before halftime against Evansville Central, and while the Bull Dogs won the game, 86-82, the outlook — at least from the outside — was gloomy heading into semistate game against Roncalli.

The girls never bought into that. If anything, the doomsday chatter only served as fuel, just as it had when people started writing the program’s obituary when Ali Patberg graduated.

“It ticks me off a lot,” senior guard Emily Kim said, “especially when Ashlyn goes down and everyone says, ‘Oh, well there’s your shot at state.’ It’s like, ‘No, it’s not. We’re still going to win.’”

That’s exactly what the Bull Dogs did, beating Roncalli for the second time in four weeks to punch their ticket to the title game.

A different look

There are some parallels between last year’s run to the championship and this one. The Bull Dogs are again heading to Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a 27-1 record. They’re again facing an opponent that they’ve already defeated during the regular season. They still feature several players who had prominent roles in 2015.But even for the players who were in the mix last year, it’s a whole different ball game.

For starters, the team is less perimeter-oriented this season. After using primarily a one-post offense during the Ali Patberg era, the Bull Dogs have primarily gone back to a two-post look.

As a result, Imani Guy and Elle Williams have both been asked to produce much more, and both have delivered. Williams’ repertoire has even expanded to include defending perimeter players such as Roncalli star Lindsey Corsaro.

“Last year, Imani and Elle basically subbed for one another,” McKee explained, “and if you added up their stats that gave you one really good post player. This year, they’ve played together almost the entire year.”

Howard-Bass was a secondary scorer as a sophomore, but she’s become a primary option this season. The 5-foot-9 junior leads the team in scoring and has delivered a pair of game-winning shots at the buzzer.

The biggest change, Howard-Bass says, is mental.

“Last year, we all kind of relied on Ali,” she stated.

“This year, we all are more confident — I know I am. I’m more confident with my shot, my decision making. That’s pretty much the big difference.”

That confidence has grown and grown over the past 12 months — and by now, not only do the Bull Dogs believe they can win a state championship without last year’s superstar, but they’ve convinced many of the skeptics who swore they couldn’t.

“They thought, ‘Columbus North will be pretty good, but …’” McKee said. “We’re trying to remove the ‘but’ — we’re just pretty good.”

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.