COLUMBUS — The Columbus North girls basketball team very nearly saw its dreams of a repeat state championship derailed by a Trojan horse.
Center Grove gave the Class 4A No. 1 Bull Dogs all they could handle in Saturday morning’s regional semifinal, keeping North on its heels for more than three quarters before the hosts rallied for a 69-58 overtime triumph.
“I thought we played three nearly flawless quarters of basketball, about exactly what we thought we could do, and we had them against the ropes,” Trojans coach Shawn Sanders said.
Center Grove (12-13) appeared to have the heavily favored Bull Dogs off balance in the early going, forcing seven turnovers during a chaotic first quarter that saw four lead changes. The last of those lead changes came on a buzzer-beating jumper by Lauren Rau that put the Trojans in front, 15-14.
Columbus North (25-1) briefly regained the upper hand a couple of times early in the second quarter before back-to-back 3-pointers from Madelyn Bitterling started an 8-0 spurt that helped Center Grove go into the locker room with a 31-26 edge.
After halftime, the Bull Dogs went ice cold from the field, and the Trojans took full advantage, methodically building up a bigger cushion. A pair of corner 3s by Amy Davis, the last coming with just over a minute left in the third, stretched the Center Grove lead all the way to 46-32.
Columbus North, though, was far from done. It used an extended 18-4 surge to tie the game with 3:21 left, then took a 53-52 lead on a Paige Littrell 3-pointer at the 2:16 mark. Allison Utterback countered with a 3 at the other end to put the Trojans back up by two, but two Maliah Howard-Bass free throws with 1:43 left put the score at 55-55, where it remained until the end of regulation.
“We were not surprised when they came out in the fourth quarter as aggressively as they did,” Sanders said. “They’re state champions for a reason. They don’t lay down for anybody no matter what the margin is.”
Center Grove was held without a field goal during the extra session, never regaining the lead after Howard-Bass opened the overtime with a 3-pointer.
Over the last 12:04 of game action, Columbus North outscored the Trojans by a 37-12 margin.
Rau, Center Grove’s lone senior, went out with a bang. She scored a team-high 15 points and added nine assists before fouling out in overtime.
“Honestly, I think we surprised ourselves,” she said of her team’s upset bid. “I don’t think we were prepared to go up that big; I think we thought it was going to be a single-possession game. We kind of let it get away from us at the end, but we battled really hard for the first three quarters.”
Davis had 12 points off the bench for the Trojans, all in the second half and overtime, while Bitterling added 11 points.
Howard-Bass paced Columbus North with 18 points despite sitting for much of the first half with foul trouble. Imani Guy and Ashlyn Huffman added 16 points apiece, with 14 of Huffman’s points coming in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Sanders was pleased with his team’s postseason performance, particularly on Saturday morning, but he couldn’t help but feel a bit let down by the end result.
“We just didn’t want to be the team that almost beat Columbus North; that’s what we didn’t want to be.”