FARMINGDALE — They’re a championship-caliber team now, through and through. It wasn’t always that way.

The wins were there for the Hall-Dale boys basketball team, same as they are now, but little else was. The disciplined ball movement was missing. So was the focus and attention to help side defense. And the transition offense. And the drive, and the intensity.

It’s a different story now. The Bulldogs (20-1) are one win away from a Class C state championship, and they’ve ridden each one of those areas to the brink of their first title since 2005.

“I feel like each game we’ve progressed, and we’ve gotten better as a team,” said junior guard Alec Byron, the MVP of the C South tournament. “We want to be playing our best basketball right now. … I think we’re feeling really good about ourselves heading into this state championship game.”

There haven’t been personnel changes. The Bulldogs’ roster is the same now as it was then, and so are the styles of play for each player on it. What’s changed isn’t so much what the Bulldogs have done, but how well they’ve done it.

“We’re the same as who we are, we’re just better,” coach Chris Ranslow said. “We just execute at a higher degree in each one of those instances.”

It was a different tune to start the season. Hall-Dale, which had its biggest contributors back from last year’s tournament team, was the favorite to win the Mountain Valley Conference, and a popular pick to emerge from Class C’s South region and make it to the state final. And according to the nightly scoreboards and standings, everything went smoothly. The Bulldogs won their first 12 games of the regular season, lost to Dirigo, and haven’t lost since.

But the scores didn’t tell the story. Ranslow saw a team that was as talented as any in the MVC but wasn’t utilizing it appropriately, and he reminded them of where the bar had been set often. It started early; Hall-Dale beat Telstar 73-54 in the opener, and Ranslow pointed out afterward the numerous poor shot choices, missed charges, sluggish defensive rotations and instances of sleepy play he had seen.

“We lacked the attention to detail and the desire to compete,” he said Wednesday. “We just lacked a general passion for the game.”

Hall-Dale kept winning, and kept getting reminded of how far they still had to go. Ranslow often pointed out their inability to play well for all four quarters of the game, and his players said that early wins over Wiscasset and Carrabec, both of whom finished with losing records, made it difficult for the team to feel that it was playing at a high level.

“We couldn’t really get a measure of how successful we could be because of the competition we were playing,” Byron said.

Gradually, the Bulldogs began to patch up the holes. Even the team’s lone setback, a 52-51 defeat at Dirigo, played a vital role in their becoming a championship-level team.

“That kind of put it into our hearts that we’re not unbeatable,” Byron said. “We know what that feeling of losing is like, and it really just made us push ourselves more in practice. We don’t want to have that feeling again.”

Hall-Dale came back the next week, crushed Richmond by 23 on the road and hasn’t looked back since.

“It’s right to point to that moment in time (as a turning point),” Ranslow said. “It was really the consequential response to it at Richmond. … You (either) learn the culture of how to lose, or did you taste it and are you willing to do everything that it takes not to have it again? It seems to be the latter of the two.”

Now it’s weeks later, the winter’s almost over and everything is different from back when it was just getting started. The Bulldogs are lightning in transition. The ball moves around in the offensive end and settles where there’s either a mismatch or an open look. Defense, once a frustration, has flourished, and was executed perfectly in the C South final as Hall-Dale’s pressure forced Winthrop into one crucial mistake after another.

“Our defensive intensity has been one of our biggest improvements,” senior forward Jett Boyer said. “That’s our bread and butter. We’ve got to have a good defensive gameplan against any team to really succeed in our game.”

Hall-Dale’s biggest asset, however, has been that passion, competitiveness and desire — the same areas Ranslow longed for back in December. The Bulldogs beat Richmond in the regular-season finale in the final second. They erased an eight-point halftime deficit and rallied back in the fourth quarter to beat Traip in the quarterfinals. They climbed out of a six-point hole against Richmond in the final minutes of the semifinals.

The Bulldogs were the MVC’s and Class C’s most talented team. They’re in the state final now because they became the toughest.

“We’ve been down 12 out of (21) games this season going into halftime, and we just finish the game,” Boyer said. “We learned how to finish games this year, and that’s been one of our biggest strides.”

It’s been a long journey — even longer than 20-1 would indicate.

“We play like a basketball team because we’ve been playing basketball for 110 days now,” Ranslow said. “Back then, we’d only been playing for maybe 20 days, and they were mostly soccer players at that point.

“There’s still room for improvement. But we’ve made significant advancements.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM