FORT WAYNE — Ayanna Patterson made it a few steps into the Woodside Middle School gym Tuesday afternoon before she was stopped dead in her tracks.
The Homestead senior thought she was there for a McDonald’s All American engagement — an honor she was to be recognized for later that night — but standing underneath the basket was Spartans coach Rod Parker, proudly holding the No. 1 Indiana All-Stars jersey.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to present this to you,” Parker told a stunned Patterson, the newly-crowned 2022 IndyStar Miss Basketball.
“That’s mine?” the five-star UConn signee asked in disbelief.
“This is yours.”
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Patterson took a moment to collect herself, then began to admire the red-white-and-blue jersey, clutching it with one hand as she wiped away tears with the other. “This means the world,” she said.
“Homestead has developed two Miss Basketball players — (that) says a lot about coach Parker and his program,” she continued. “The hard work we put in these past four years paid off.”
Patterson was a seventh-grader when Homestead produced its first Miss Basketball, Karissa McLaughlin, and recalls attending every game as the school’s all-time leading scorer (2,586 points) led the Spartans to the 2017 Class 4A state championship her senior year. “I couldn’t imagine them giving Miss Basketball to anyone else that season,” she said.
The same could be said of Patterson.
An elite offensive player and skilled defender, the 6-3 guard/forward guided Homestead to a 23-2 record and its fourth-straight sectional championship this season, averaging 25.8 points (60.4% shooter), 11.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, with 19 double-doubles and seven 30-point performances. A Naismith All-American, she ranks second on the Spartans’ all-time scoring list (1,912) and holds seven school records, including career rebounds (1,006) and blocks.
Patterson received 115 Miss Basketball votes, outpacing Crown Point’s Jessica Carrothers (42), South Bend Washington’s Mila Reynolds (15) and Westfield’s Alyssa Crockett (10), among the 16 who received votes.
“A player like Ayanna only comes around once in a lifetime,” Warsaw coach Lenny Krebs said. “Her size and athleticism are evident to all, (but) what really makes her special is her desire to master her craft… She is an amazing person, teammate, friend and role model. It’s been an absolute privilege to watch her the last four years.”
Patterson has been at the forefront as the level of play and interest in Indiana high school girls basketball continue to skyrocket, and has embraced her role as an ambassador for the game, remaining humble and gracious with her time.
Parker watched from the stands Tuesday afternoon as Patterson stepped away to take a selfie with a couple fans. “That’s just Ayanna,” he said.
“She understands the game is bigger than her and she gets to have a tiny imprint on it. She’s taken every advantage she can to make it a positive impact and help grow the game.”
Finding her passion
Parker received a call from Homestead High School in late May 2018 alerting him to an incoming freshman who was moving into the district. She “plays basketball and is kind of tall,” he was told.
A few weeks later, the longtime coach received a call from Patterson’s father, Andre Sr.
Andre was confident his daughter could play college basketball and believed the academic rigors and class offerings at Homestead would enable her to get into any school she wanted. “(Andre) had a lot of foresight and Ayanna is a great student,” Parker said.
Academics were the stick for Patterson growing up and though sports were typically the carrot, it wasn’t always basketball. In fact, she merely “dabbled” in the sport growing up.
That may seem counterintuitive given Patterson’s rich basketball background — her dad and brother both played professionally (Andre Jr. in the G League) — but the sport was never forced upon her. Patterson was allowed to find her own interests, she said. Up until middle school, she was dedicated to becoming a world-class sprinter.
“I didn’t think about anything else. I was going to run in the Olympics,” said Patterson, whose mother ran track in high school. “I didn’t think anything about basketball.”
Patterson’s passions began to shift in sixth grade when she joined an AAU team for a weekend tournament. The towering middle schooler wasn’t the best player on the team, she said, but she was taken by the team dynamic, the camaraderie among the coaches and players.
A year later, Patterson decided to focus on basketball and her career took off from there.
College coaches flocked in to watch her games at Memorial Park Middle School in Fort Wayne, a few even extending offers ahead of her freshman season.
Ali Stephens recalled playing against Patterson as a seventh-grader. Her future teammate fully exploited her size advantage and “absolutely dominated,” the junior guard said. Once they became teammates, Stephens learned Patterson was truly distinguished by her dedication.
“Ayanna’s work ethic makes you want to be better on and off the court,” Stephens said. “She’s funny, super nice and super knowledgeable… She’s just an amazing person.”
‘Man, that’s awesome.’
Patterson was feeling it.
After dealing with back issues throughout the week, she felt “real good” ahead of Homestead’s mid-December game at Fort Wayne Dwenger, and decided to test her hops and see how high she could get off the ground.
Today’s the day. It has to be, Patterson told herself. “If I get the ball on the left side, I gotta go for the dunk.”
The moment arrived off a Dwenger miss. A teammate tipped the ball up to Patterson, springing her free for a breakaway. Patterson peeked over her shoulder to make sure no one was chasing her and committed: She was going for the dunk.
“Everyone stood up and started going crazy because we knew what she was going to do,” Stephens said. “It was insane.”
With clear passage to the basket, No. 34 went airborne and just as she reached the rim — the ball slipped out of her hands. “If I would have held onto it just a little bit longer,” grinned Patterson.
The crowd went wild as Patterson waved her arms then looked toward the bench, unsure how her coach would react to her receiving a technical foul for hanging on the rim.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Parker said. “I just laughed. Like, ‘Man, that’s awesome.'”
Though none were quite as electrifying as her near-dunk vs. Dwenger, Patterson’s career was littered with similarly unique, jaw-dropping moments. From her gaudy scoring performances to pinning shots against the backboard, Parker recalled her blocking multiple shots on the same possession against Columbia City in sectionals. “She was just down there going nuts on people,” he laughed.
“There were so many times when she would go out and do something special,” he said. “And it wasn’t just scoring. It was also her ability to pass and create for teammates, to defend — all kinds of things where you’re just like, ‘Wow, that’s next-level.'”
Life in the spotlight
Patterson was trying her best not to smile.
Homestead was moments away from playing Fort Wayne South in the sectional championship game, and Patterson — at her teammates’ behest — had looked to the stands where a young girl was holding an “Ayanna Patterson” sign. “I was trying to stay in the game mode,” Patterson said.
“She came down afterwards and I was so excited to take a photo with her,” she continued. “That was the first time someone made a banner and brought it to a game.”
With an infectious laugh and a smile that lights up the room, Patterson relishes those moments with fans. She finds just as much joy in posing for a selfie or signing an autograph as the person who asked for it. “I love making their day,” she says. “It makes mine, too.”
As she sat in the bleachers Tuesday, Patterson reflected upon the rise in talent and corresponding growth in popularity of girls high school basketball in Indiana.
The first game of her career was played in front of a nearly-empty arena at Carmel vs. fellow freshman Kate Clarke (Michigan commit).
Sparse attendance was the norm early in Patterson’s career, but large crowds were the norm by year four, she said, citing specifically Homestead’ clash with rival Snider, which was played in front of a raucous, capacity crowd. “That was surreal.”
“It’s super cool seeing that girls basketball — and just women’s sports in general — are getting the same attention as the men,” Patterson said. “I never really thought this day would come.”
Best years ahead
Patterson’s high school career was nothing short of incredible. Beyond her exploits at Homestead, she was also a three-time USA Basketball National Team invitee and won gold at the 2021 U18 3×3 FIBA World Cup.
But as this year’s Miss Basketball proudly posed for photos in her No. 1 Indiana All-Stars jersey, Parker pondered a question he’s had since he first saw Patterson play as a freshman: What will her ceiling be?
Sure she tore it up in high school, but with an opportunity to play for the legendary Geno Auriemma at UConn, and likely a professional career beyond that, there’s no telling how far she’ll go.
“Ayanna just keeps getting better all the time,” Parker said. “I’m very confident that I did not coach Ayanna Patterson through her best years of basketball.”
Follow Brian Haenchen on Twitter at @Brian_Haenchen.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism