Carolina Forest wasn’t supposed to be here, hosting another playoff game.
The Panthers were too small, didn’t have a deep enough bench and were still learning how to play without last year’s impressive senior class. And during an ugly first half against White Knoll Tuesday night, it looked like the ride would end in the opening round.
Then Ally Niles started throwing up at halftime and everything changed.
The sophomore guard spurred a second-half charge en route to a 52-41 victory that pushed the Panthers to the second round of the state playoffs for the second year in a row.
As for Niles' delayed anxiety relief? Well, better late than never.
“I normally do it before every game. I get real nervous and psych myself out,” she said. “Five seconds before a game I can get mentally focused and play the game. Everyone says when I throw up, I play better. Something must click and I get my head in the game.”
The normal pregame ritual turned halftime purge showed in her performance against the Timberwolves. She finished with a game-high 17 points and seven rebounds, and 13 and six of those figures came after the break. She had eight points in the first three minutes of the second half, a span in which the Panthers went from trailing by three to leading by as much as seven.
White Knoll kept it from becoming a blowout, but a little defensive change at halftime gave coach Stacy Hughes’ team a comfortable cushion in the closing moments. They switched approaches to put more pressure on White Knoll guard Jalisa Squirewell after she dropped 13 in the first half.
She was able to manage just two more points in the second.
The victory equated to Carolina Forest’s fourth playoff win since moving to the state’s largest classification in 2008-2009, and its third in the last two seasons. Getting to this new norm proved that maybe this is more of a program and not simply the product of three standout seniors from last season.
The Panthers, after all, lost a trio of 1,000-point career scorers in Alexis Tomlin, Cheyenne Pyles-Moultrie and Ellen Nardella. Those three last year accounted for 77 percent of the team’s scoring, 60 percent of the rebounding, 72 percent of the assists and 65 percent of the steals. They led the team to 20 wins last season and a trip to the third round of the playoffs.
“You don’t always get a home playoff game,” Hughes said. “When you do, you really need to lock it in.
“We’ve kind of overachieved expectations for all of us. In our preseason tournament, we had some good combinations and we were jelling. But we were young, so we’ve had some peaks and valleys, what you have with young teams. We’ve had some areas of really good, team basketball.”
The spurts during the second half showed that while Niles may have been the impetus, there were plenty of other contributors, too. Gabby Giracello scored 10 of her 14 after halftime (and she also had five assists and eight steals). Carly Skolsky finished with 15, 10 of which came in the third and fourth quarters.
They’ll certainly need that sort of production throughout in the second round when they travel to Fort Dorchester, a team that already eclipsed 20 victories and was ranked No. 5 in the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association state poll entering the postseason. The Patriots blew out Berkeley in the opening round.
A tall task, to be sure, but one that Carolina Forest earned with yet another postseason victory.
“When [Tomlin, Pyles-Moultrie and Nardella] left, everyone thought we’d just do our best and have a semi-decent season,” Niles said. “But we came out and did big things and proved to people that we could keep winning.”