Painful Ending / Bull Dogs start fast, but Cougars rally for first-round victory

BLOOMINGTON — Playing its first game in 24 days, Columbus North couldn’t have asked for a better start to Tuesday night’s sectional opener.

Unfortunately for the Bull Dogs, it didn’t last.

Bloomington North came back from an early 19-10 deficit to post an 89-68 win in the Bloomington South Sectional and advance to an 8 p.m. Friday semifinal matchup with Columbus East.

Not only was Columbus North (11-5) coming off a long layoff, they were banged up. Leading scorer and rebounder Blake Barker sustained a bad ankle sprain in practice six days before the game and had limited mobility. Still, he led the Bull Dogs with 29 points and nine rebounds in his final high school game.

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“I’m not really sure how he did it because he has barely practiced since Wednesday, and his ankle was heavily taped and probably about 75 percent,” Columbus North coach Paul Ferguson said. “But he came out and gave an unbelievable effort and certainly was a spark for us out there. I wish we could have gotten this win for him and for our seniors because it just felt like the season left itself a little short.

Barker and the Bull Dogs didn’t show any signs of injury or rust early. Barker hit his first four shots — two 2-pointers and two 3-pointers — to spark them to a 19-10 lead six minutes into the game.

“It was a great start,” Ferguson said. “The first seven minutes of the game, we did everything we talked about in our scouting report and made a few shots and made some plays. It’s hard to do when you’ve been off for 24 days. But I loved the start. It was fantastic.”

The Cougars (12-4) went on a 9-0 run to tie the game. Columbus North went back in front 25-21 and led 29-25 midway through the second quarter, but Bloomington North finished the first half on a 14-4 run to take a 39-33 lead at the break.

“We made a couple mistakes in the second quarter on our scouting report which we’d love to have back,” Ferguson said. “To win a big game like this, you have to execute the scouting report from start to finish, but you also have to credit Bloomington North. They did not play very well their last two games, but they shot the ball really well tonight. They made a lot of free throws and shot the ball better than we’ve seen in the last month.”

The Cougars stretched the lead to 62-44 after three quarters and led by 20 early in the fourth. But the Bull Dogs didn’t quit. They used a 9-0 run to get back within 11, but could get no closer.

Columbus North was still within 80-68 with 2 ½ minutes remaining before Bloomington North scored the game’s final nine points.

“My kids played with a lot of heart,” Ferguson said. “They didn’t give up. They fought like crazy at the end of the game. I was really proud of their effort and their character.”

Cooper Horn scored 16 points, and Reese Harmon added 11 for the Bull Dogs. Isaac Vencel had 26 to lead four Cougars with at least 17 points.