Even after last season ended with a first-round thumping in the playoffs, and even after it opened their 2020-2021 campaign with a lopsided loss, the Loris girls basketball team believed it had a shot to put together a special year.
Then, the Lions weren’t sure if they’d play another game.
Over the course of six weeks, Doug Gause’s team sat idle. First, there was a team quarantine when a junior varsity player who later tested positive for COVID-19 showed up at a practice. Days later, Horry County Schools announced it was putting all programs across the district on hold out of precaution.
“It was really challenging. There was a conditioning factor as well,” Gause said Thursday. “We really felt like we were behind the eight ball. We didn’t know if we were going to have a season. Luckily, we were able to get it started.”
And what the Lions have done since getting another chance is make the most of it.
Loris will host a first-round home game on Monday against Oceanside Collegiate after winning all six games since restarting, earning the Region VII-3A crown and a No. 1 seed for the Class 3A playoffs.
In many ways, the Lions’ first-round match-up is a microcosm of the adjustments that were necessary just to get to this point. They’ve played just seven games this season, roughly half of Oceanside’s 13-game slate.
“That’s a big concern for us,” Gause said. “With them having more games, they might be more fine-tuned. But based on what we’ve done the last three games, I think we’re starting to hit on all cylinders.”
Admittedly, Loris isn’t as polished as most No. 1 seeds would be at this point of normal calendar year. Gause estimated that his team committed 30 turnovers in the region-clinching victory against Waccamaw earlier this week.
But what he does have is a team that was somehow able to start to gel despite a six-week layoff. Junior JaLynn Johnson averages a double-double (10.1 points, 13 rebounds) per game, and senior Corteria Chestnut is putting up 10.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 steals and 3.1 assists per contest. Around them, there is plenty of help.
It all added up to the program’s first region championship since 1981 and a home playoff game amid the craziness of a season unlike any other.
FROM NO PRESSURE TO PRESSURE COOKER
The Carolina Forest boys locked up the Region VI-5A championship nearly two full weeks before the playoffs began, meaning they were able to play their final two regular-season games without anything on the line except focusing on their own growth.
“That was huge for us,” Panthers coach Emmanuel Dewalt said. “It took a little pressure off the guys and being able to play game by game. That was good to help us change our focus.”
The results stayed the same.
Carolina Forest closed out the regular season with wins over Socastee and Sumter, and it finished the regular season with an undefeated region run and four non-region losses that all fell during the Beach Ball Classic or prior to the team’s football-playing members hitting the hardwood.
The Panthers (15-4) will now open the 5A playoffs at home against Wando on Tuesday, ready for next to no breathing room for as long as their postseason run continues.
“Anybody can beat anybody. You’ll see some three seeds beat some two seeds in a normal year, but very few four seeds beat No. 1s,” Dewalt said, referring to the standard playoff brackets that were condensed for this season. “But this year, we’re already starting in the second round. There are some matchups of some very talented teams. If you stay healthy and stay away from Corona, you’re going to see some very good basketball. You can’t have an off night.”
SPEAKING OF POSITIONING
In a typical year, home-court advantage is huge in the first round. For instance, road teams won only 22 of the 144 first-round games across the five classifications of boys and girls basketball last year.
However, this isn’t a typical year.
In order to increase the chances of basketball being played, the postseason was reduced by one round, something that cut the number of teams in half and got rid of many of the lower-seeded teams that often can’t compete with the state’s best squads.
With mostly first- and second-place finishers competing along with a small number of at-large teams in Class 4A, it remains to be seen how much home-court advantage means this time around.
Any early advantage for local teams will also likely be short-lived. Of the Horry County programs who earned first-round home games (Carolina Forest boys, North Myrtle Beach girls, Loris girls), only North Myrtle Beach is also guaranteed a second-round home game if it wins in the first round.
HORRY COUNTY PLAYOFF BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
Myrtle Beach (at-large) at No. 1 Bluffton
Beaufort (at-large) at No. 1 North Myrtle Beach
No. 2 St. James at No. 1 Wando
No. 2 Oceanside Collegiate at No. 1 Loris
No. 2 Myrtle Beach at No. 2 South Aiken
North Myrtle Beach (at-large) at No. 1 Hilton Head/James Island (TBD)
No. 2 Conway at No. 1 Goose Creek
No. 2 Wando at No. 1 Carolina Forest