Carlie Skolsky drew one of the toughest defensive assignments in the state last season.
She had to guard Alexis Tomlin every week.
“[It was] very intimidating and very scary because she was, like, the beast,” Skolsky said of the former Carolina Forest center, the state’s 5A girls player of the year in 2018. “She was very, very good.”
Tomlin was also very large. She stood north of 6 feet while Skolsky is just 5-9. Tomlin had the bulkier frame of a post player, too, compared to the wispy Skolsky.
It wasn’t a fair matchup, but their practice battles forced Skolsky to learn how to guard and box out bigger, more aggressive opponents.
“She actually gave me a black eye once,” Skolsky said, referring to the time she caught an inadvertent elbow from Tomlin. “That was not fun. But it taught me a lot.”
The Panthers are benefitting from that education this season.
Their junior center can’t provide the offensive power of her predecessor — Tomlin averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game as a senior; Skolsky is averaging just under 14 points and five rebounds — but she’s vocal in the same way, clapping her hands during tense moments and yelling at her teammates to maintain their defensive pressure.
“She really kind of established herself as the floor leader,” coach Stacy Hughes said.
“She’s communicating more and more frequently. She’s kind of the voice that’s keeping us together on the court at times.”
Jordan Martin, the team’s lone senior starter, agrees.
“She’s very talkative in practice,” Martin said. “And she helps bring energy when we need it.”
Last year’s team thrived on half-court sets. Along with Tomlin, the Panthers had three-point specialist Ellen Nardella and veteran guard Cheyenne Pyles-Moultrie.
They used timely shooting and relied on Tomlin’s rebounding dominance to overpower teams. That approach led to a region title and an appearance in the third round of the playoffs.
This team isn’t like that. It’s a younger, smaller and less experienced group, but it’s also a faster, scrappier squad that runs the floor and relies on turnovers to kick-start a fast-break offense.
That was obvious in a 61-43 win on Jan. 11 over their rival Conway. The smaller Panthers pressed the Tigers and converted fast-break layups.
Carolina Forest is now 10-10 overall and 4-1 in region play.
The Panthers were scheduled to play South Florence at home Tuesday after press deadlines. They will face Socastee on the road Friday at 6:30 p.m.
Despite being in rebuilding mode, players feel confident about where they are as a team.
“We definitely have good chemistry,” Martin said. “We’re working together better. We’re not about ourselves. We’re about getting the ball to everyone and seeing the open spots and trying to win the game, whatever does that best.”
Hughes certainly expects Skolsky to play a key role in the Panther offense. She’s pleased with the center’s development, especially with this year’s quicker approach.
“We knew she could run the court well, but she just really put it on herself to get down the court and attack,” the coach said.
“We’re just real happy with her progression. She does have big shoes to fill. She’s a little bit different player than Alexis, a little more finesse.”
The up-tempo, rim-to-rim style of basketball fits Skolsky’s game better than Tomlin’s, though the latter, who now plays for the Wofford Terriers, was more of a scoring threat.
Although she’s replaced Tomlin on the court, Skolsky doesn’t dwell on the comparisons. She’s comfortable with her role, and she appreciates her former teammate’s help in shaping her game.
“I like to think of myself as a runner,” she said. “I don’t really like to compare myself to Lexi, but I like to look up to her and follow in her footsteps.”