Socastee pulled ahead again.
Just like they did twice last year against Carolina Forest, the Braves looked like they were going to pull out a narrow victory Friday in a game with big implications for the region.
Then Ally Niles flipped the script.
As soon as the Braves took a one-point lead, Niles raced ahead of the Socastee defense, caught a perfectly threaded pass from Gabby Giracello and finished the layup to put Carolina Forest in front with about 30 seconds to play. The Panthers held on for the 44-42 win, their first region victory of the season.
For Niles’ teammates and coaches, pivotal plays like that are what they’ve come to expect from the junior guard who came to Carolina Forest as a shy transfer from Easley and developed into one of the team’s leaders.
“Ally’s like the wild card,” Carolina Forest coach Stacy Hughes said. “She can do so much — rebound, shoot, pass. She’s got such good size for a guard. We’ve just got to get her a little more consistent. If she could be consistent every night, she can dump some points in a hurry.”
When Niles moved to the area as a freshman, she found herself on a Panther team loaded with senior talent. She spent most of that season watching the older varsity players. Last year, she began the season coming off the bench but worked her way into the starting lineup with double-digit scoring. In a first-round playoff victory over White Knoll, Niles led the Panthers with 17 points and seven rebounds.
“It just took her a while to kind of bond with the girls and blend in and feel comfortable,” Hughes said.
This winter, there was never a question about whether No. 21 would be starting.
Niles said she’s noticed that other players look for her to give the team a spark. She’s embraced that leadership role.
“If I’m dull, the whole team starts to be dull,” she said.
Her teammates agree.
Senior forward Carlie Skolsky said Niles will occasionally joke with players and use humor in tense situations to keep her teammates relaxed.
“She brings a lot of goofiness to the team,” Skolsky said. “We do need that sometimes.”
Niles is averaging 10.5 points per game this season, but she also missed some time after spraining her right ankle at a tournament in Sumter.
She’s not the only Panther who has dealt with an injury this year, and the team has struggled to find some consistency. Heading into Tuesday's game against South Florence, they were just 4-13 (1-0 region). However, Niles pointed out that the Panthers lost several close games and have continued to improve as the season has progressed.
Carolina Forest finished second in the region behind Socastee last year. Despite their overall record, the team remains optimistic about region play.
“We’re definitely a better team than our record,” Niles said.
The Panthers showed some of that potential in last week’s win over the Braves. They trailed for nearly the entire game and looked abysmal in the first half.
“Socastee was pretty much doing whatever they wanted the first half,” Hughes said. “I told the kids they were like zombies. We kind of got it together after halftime, adjusted our defense and in the fourth quarter we kind of cranked it up.”
Down 35-26 after three quarters, the Panthers switched to a smaller lineup and went into a full-court press. They pulled back into the game by forcing turnovers and converting them into points. Skolsky hit a three to put the Panthers up 39-37 in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.
But Skolsky, the team’s leading scorer this season, fouled out with about two minutes left.
That set up the finale and Niles’ game-changing play.
“She’s definitely one of our clutch players for sure,” Skolsky said. “As you could see from that layup, when she’s in the mindset, it’s game over."