All season long, Carolina Forest’s coaches talked about the importance of the third quarter.
The first four minutes, they said, those set the tone.
For the first four minutes Friday, the Panthers couldn’t hit a shot. They didn’t hit one in the latter four minutes either.
The scoreless quarter proved to be too much for the region champs to overcome as they fell 54-48 to River Bluff in the second round of the 5A playoffs.
“I don’t think we were playing soft,” coach Stacy Hughes said. “We just weren’t as sharp. … That third quarter, eight-minute drought killed us.”
Both offenses struggled to find a rhythm in the opening quarter, which ended with River Bluff leading 11-10.
But the second period saw the teams heat up. The Gators’ sensational eighth grader Samira Khalil connected on four three-pointers while Carolina Forest forward Ally Niles nearly matched her with 11 points in the period. At halftime, River Bluff led 36-30.
Then came the third quarter.
The Panthers missed open threes. Point-blank layups rimmed out. The one shot they did put through the hoop — a free throw — was erased by a lane violation.
“It was like we had a lid on the basket,” Hughes said.
Despite trailing by 18 heading into the final quarter, the Panthers chipped away at the Gators’ lead. Led by senior Carlie Skolsky, who scored 11 of her team-high 15 points in the final quarter, the Panthers pulled within six with three minutes to play. But missed free throws and botched layups ended any hope of a comeback.
While the Panthers’ season concludes in Round 2 for the second straight year, they did reclaim the region title from Socastee this season.
“It meant a whole bunch more,” Skolsky said. “We had three seniors that wanted this region win. … I’m super proud of everybody.”
Skolsky, Alaje Stanley and Madison Powell made up the squad’s senior trio. But Skolsky, the Panthers’ captain, will be the lone starter that Hughes has to replace next year. The forward was also the team’s emotional leader who knew all the Panthers’ plays. She was often an extra coach on the floor.
“She’s been our verbal leader all season,” Hughes said. "We’re going to miss her. … We’ve got a big hole to fill.”
Although she was upset with the way the season ended, Hughes remains optimistic about next year. She will have four of her five starters back.
Point guard Gabby Giracello, shooting guard Ally Niles, sharpshooter Reilly Ward and emerging forward Kennidee McLain will all return for the Panthers, along with some talented up-and-comers.
“A lot of the core kids are back,” Hughes said. “We’re just getting stronger and better … I’m excited about what’s to come, but just so disappointed right now.”
Myrtle Beach girls fall to North Augusta
In 4A action, No. 3 seed Myrtle Beach lost to No. 1 North Augusta 78-42.