The Columbus North girls basketball team began the season ranked No. 1 in the state and even was the top-ranked team in one national preseason poll.
The Bull Dogs haven’t played like a No. 1 team at times this season. But throughout most of the sectional and regional, they’ve showed the form that led to those lofty rankings.
Now, North is just one win away from its third consecutive trip to the state finals and two wins from its second state title. The Bull Dogs (21-7) will play Class 4A No. 4 Pike (23-3) in the Richmond Semistate at around 3 p.m. Saturday.
“Our goal was always to win a state championship,” senior point guard Ashlyn Huffman said. “It wasn’t to go undefeated. This is what we’ve been waiting for all year, and we’re ready for it.”
North’s first two losses this season — against Lawrence North and at Lakota West (Ohio) — came with Huffman on the bench in street clothes. She tore an ACL last summer and missed the Bull Dogs’ first five games.
Two other North players — juniors Kat Norman and Kelsey Patberg — tore ACLs in the summer and fall. Norman has returned but is not back to 100 percent. Patberg has not played this season.
Huffman still was working her way back into shape when North lost at Seymour and against 4A No. 3 Zionsville in the finals of the North Invitational. Following that loss, Bull Dogs coach Pat McKee met with his three seniors — Huffman, Maliah Howard-Bass and Imani Guy. He told them they had nine games left in the regular season, and asked them to talk to the rest of the team about what they were going to make of the season.
“After the (Lakota West) game in Cincinnati, I was pretty harsh with (the team) because I thought we could have played better there,” McKee said. “After the Seymour game, I was less harsh, but I thought we could have played better. But at that point, we were saying, ‘It doesn’t matter what we’ve done to this point.’ It was ‘Are we going to get better?'”
North came out of the break playing well in wins against Jennings County and Southport. But then the Bull Dogs lost at Perry Meridian, their first Conference Indiana defeat in five years.
Following that game, Huffman called a players-only meeting.
“We talked a lot about, even when there’s differences (with each other), setting it aside and not taking it personally,” Huffman said. “Also, we talked a lot about our energy level, not only from the players on the court, but the players on the bench. I think that’s been a huge difference as we’ve started the tournament. I think that energy level was one of the things that we were missing the entire season.”
It certainly was missing in late-season losses at Louisville Mercy and Roncalli. North turned things around in sectional wins against Shelbyville and East Central, but then nearly stumbled again.
The Bull Dogs went ice cold from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter before hanging on for a 43-41 sectional final win against Columbus East.
“We just kind of kept getting drawn into those bad games,” Huffman said. “The start of sectional, we came out with a lot of energy. I think we did overlook East a little bit and didn’t anticipate that game going that way.”
Since the postseason has started, Huffman has hosted pasta parties each week at her house. Assistant coach Karen McCaa gives a motivational talk to the team, and then they do a devotion and have team activities.
Howard-Bass thinks those get-togethers have helped the entire team get on the same page.
“We have some young people on the team, and they might be kind of nervous, so it helps with just calming everyone down and saying it’s OK,” Howard-Bass said. “We all have each other’s backs, and it helps us with communication, too.”
North played two of its best games of the season in Saturday’s Bedford North Lawrence Regional. The Bull Dogs upset a 23-1 Evansville Central team 66-50 before downing the 4A No. 9 host squad 49-45 in the final.
McKee said in an up-and-down year, that certainly was a high point.
“We’ve had some very good moments this season, and we’ve been frustrated because we haven’t played very well,” McKee said. “Saturday, we played as well as we have all season, and that’s the way we thought we could play all year. It’s just an evolution that all teams go through, and you add the injury factor to that, and it’s made the process slower than us coaches and fans would have liked.”
The Bull Dogs, who hope their bad games are behind them, will be looking for the same type of energy and production against Pike that it had in Saturday’s regional victories.
“Throughout the season, we’ve had bad games,” Huffman said. “I know other people don’t believe in us, but we know we’re a good team. We proved that at regional, and I think we can prove it again at semistate this weekend.”
Game-by-game results for Columbus North (21-7):
Nov. 8;New Albany;W 65-55
Nov. 11;at Martinsville;W 55-50
Nov. 18;Franklin Central;W 51-37
Nov. 19;Lawrence North;L 54-65
Nov. 26;at Lakota West (Ohio);L 43-58
Dec. 3;at Terre Haute South;W 73-66
Dec. 6;Greenwood;W 72-35
Dec. 8;East Central;W 63-37
Dec. 13;at Seymour;L 44-57
Dec. 15;at Columbus East;W 58-43
Dec. 17;Terre Haute North;W 76-28
Dec. 22;Evansville Memorial;W 63-50
Dec. 23;Mooresville;W 65-64 (OT)
Dec. 23;Zionsville;L 49-55
Jan. 3;at Jennings County;W 62-40
Jan. 5;Southport;W 63-52
Jan. 7;at Perry Meridian;L 48-60
Jan. 10;at Franklin;W 52-43
Jan. 14;at Bloomington South;W 49-38
Jan. 20;Bloomington North;W 83-27
Jan. 21;at Louisville Mercy;L 47-61
Jan. 24;Whiteland;W 66-56
Jan. 26;at Roncalli;L 29-45
Jan. 31;Shelbyville (sectional);W 87-25
Feb. 3;East Central (sectional);W 56-32
Feb. 4;Columbus East (sectional;W 43-41
Feb. 11;Evansville Central (regional);W 66-50
Feb. 11;at Bedford NL (regional);W 49-45
What: Richmond Semistate
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Richmond High School
Who: Columbus North (21-7) vs. Pike (23-3)
Advancement: Winner moves on to the Class 4A state finals at around 8:15 p.m. Feb. 25 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse