INDIANAPOLIS — It was a conversation I never thought would occur.
There I was, on the Monday before the Indiana girls basketball state championship, attending a news conference at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
I expected to be spending my time prepping for the boys sectionals with all our girls entries long gone from the playoffs. Instead, I was sitting across from Columbus North girls basketball coach Pat McKee.
As McKee answered questions in his usual matter-of-fact delivery in anticipation of Saturday’s Class 4A clash with Homestead, I thought about his team’s remarkable accomplishment.
This is a team that lost two Division I players — Tayler Goodall to Florida Gulf Coast and Kelsey Cunningham to Wisconsin-Milwaukee — and got better. How is that possible?
If you look at the Bull Dogs, from outside the program, you see one, and only one, truly gifted ball handler in Ali Patberg. Sure, some of her teammates are very solid, but not what you would call gifted.
Cunningham was an exceptional dribbler and Goodall was above-average. And they left.
That one area, dribbling, I thought was enough to keep the Bull Dogs from advancing past the state’s very best teams.
How could they survive when everyone was going to double-team Patberg and force her to give up the ball?
It’s called great coaching.
Certainly, North has as much pure talent or more than any team in the state. The Bull Dogs have remarkable 3-point shooters in Paige Littrell and Sheyanne Street. They’ve got a 6-foot-4 center in Imani Guy and a smaller post in Elle Williams who can run the floor with anyone.
They got an emerging talent in Maliah Howard-Bass and a defensive standout in Debie Gedeon.
What they don’t have is that other guard who is comfortable dribbling through intense traffic.
North’s coaching staff had to devise a plan where if Patberg didn’t have the ball, she was a huge threat to get the ball in a position where she would have a clean line to the basket. It’s pretty hard to double-cover a player who doesn’t have the ball, while trapping the ball handler at the same time.
If you have watched North on a regular basis, you might notice that no one except for Patberg dribbles a whole lot. They get the ball, and it’s gone to another player. What I underestimated was the Bull Dogs’ passing skills and the coaching staff’s ability to maximize that area of the game.
How often do you see North get the ball to a player in what would be considered a bad spot? Not very often.
They are coached to play to each others’ strengths. Guy only touches the ball when she is two feet from the basket. Street gets it when she has spotted up for a 3. Gedeon receives the ball only when she is slashing to the basket.
Two other factors have moved the Bull Dogs forward significantly when it comes to pure ball handling. One has been the confidence of sophomore Howard-Bass, who has made herself an outside shooting threat. Her steady improvement as an offensive force has made the opponent guard much more of the court. That takes pressure off Patberg.
The other has been Littrell’s hard work at becoming more of a factor driving to the rim. Earlier this season, if she wasn’t open for the 3, the ball swung around the perimeter to a teammate. Now she has developed a quick first step that allows her to go around defenders and forces the post defender to come to her. She has become more comfortable with a little flip shot from about 10 feet.
If Littrell is taking up two defenders, I like North’s chances. The girls, of course, get most of the credit for their run to the championship game.
It would be a slight, though, if we didn’t acknowledge McKee and his varsity staff, RaNae Isaak, Ron Patberg, Brett White, Alan Vickrey and Karen McCaa.
A huge atta-boy to them for bringing this production together, surprising some of us, and carving out memories for the players that will last a lifetime.
Jay Heater is The Republic sports editor. He can be reached at [email protected] or 812-379-5632.