The final drill of Monday’s practice was everything Stacy Hughes wanted out of her team.
In just two minutes, the Carolina Forest girls basketball squad was asked to score 35 points in a half-court weave session of sorts that didn’t allow dribbling or the ball to hit the ground. One miss was OK; two was not.
It was fast. It was hectic. And after nearly two hours of practice and conditioning, it was something that could prove late-game mettle when players are most tired.
Doing most of the damage to the required mark was the team’s talented trio of seniors – Alexis Tomlin, Cheyenne Pyles-Moultrie and Ellen Nardella. And when the latter launched and connected on a 3-pointer at the buzzer and the team reached the 35-point goal, she and her teammates erupted into screams of excitement, high-fives and fist pumps.
If this scene – the frenzied, high-paced, high-scoring 120 seconds that ended in exuberance – was the Panthers of 2017-18, the preceding failed attempt at the same drill was Carolina Forest girls basketball of three years back. For it wasn’t all that long ago that Hughes saw promise without much production.
Clearly, her squad isn’t the same one that struggled to six wins in 2014-2015, when Pyles-Moultrie, Nardella and Tomlin were freshmen.
“I think we knew they were a talented group from the beginning. We had been playing basketball together for a long time,” Tomlin said. “But I think it really came down to that we were good as individuals and we weren’t really good together. It took us a couple years. We struggled. When we started to mesh together, that’s when we really started to play good, clean, fundamental basketball. That’s when we’ve had success.”
This year is what that success looks like. The Big Three have led the Panthers to records of 16-4 overall and 8-0 in Region VI-5A. As soon as Friday’s home game against Conway, Hughes could seal her second championship in 16 years at the helm.
Considering she once questioned whether to stick around this long makes it that much sweeter.
Basketball has always been in Stacy Hughes’ blood.
She played at Coastal Carolina from 1988-1992 and remains in the top 10 in five career categories at the school. Following her playing days, she earned her Master’s degree and began teaching and coaching. Various stops led her to Carolina Forest 18 years ago. Two years after that, she assumed control of the Panthers’ varsity squad.
There were some good seasons in those first few, including a region championship in 2008-2009 and a 19-win season the following winter. After that, Carolina Forest’s luck began to change. Losses outnumbered the victories, and some off-court bickering was wearing thin on the longtime coach.
Hughes confided in a small number of friends that she was considering walking away.
“There was a thing with a couple parents. We did have a couple kids leave the program,” Hughes said. “There are a lot of things that go into it. There’s been a couple years when it’s been like ‘This is a lot of work. This is year-round.’ It makes the commitment tough, to make it worth it.”
Nardella, who began playing for the varsity as an eighth-grader, heard some of those rumors back then. And while she never addressed it with Hughes, there was an appreciation for her coach’s decision to stay.
“It tells me that she really cares about us as individual players that she’d want to stick around,” Nardella said. “She cares about us and she loves us. She tells us every day. I believe it.”
Said Pyles-Moultrie: “She didn’t have to stay. Instead, she decided to have faith in all of us and that we would grow and eventually we would become everything that she wanted. It just paid off.”
That’s putting it lightly.
Oddly enough, Tomlin and Pyles-Moultrie were playing varsity games before even Nardella.
Those two suited up as seventh-graders, thrown into the fire because of some of the attrition issues that Carolina Forest was starting to face. Pyles-Moultrie averaged all of 3.4 points per game; Tomlin chipped in 1.4.
“Putting me and Cheyenne on varsity as seventh-graders, most coaches won’t take that chance,” Tomlin said. “They’ll wait a couple years for you to develop. Those years, being exposed to such a caliber player at such a young age, it helps – your growth rate was exponential.”
The following year, when Tomlin skipped basketball to concentrate on club volleyball, Pyles-Moultrie’s scoring bumped up to more than six points per game, and the newcomer Nardella added 3.7.
In 2014-2015, though, all three were together, and something special started to develop. After combining to average 31 points per game as freshmen, it jumped to 34 during their sophomore season and 43 as juniors. They’re just below that mark this year, although some of that can be attributed to fewer minutes because of some blowouts along the way.
Most notably, all three have logged 90 games together on the court. Individually, they are all members of the 1,000-point club, an extreme rarity for three members of the same team and grade, even for girls programs where six-year varsity careers are allowed in South Carolina.
The trio has led a resurgence at Carolina Forest, going from six wins to nine to 16 over the past three seasons with more possibly on the way this season. To boot, Hughes now has 225 wins for her career.
This season, especially if the Panthers can earn that region title, could further make the promise pay off. The Panthers would enjoy home-court advantage through the first three rounds of what is expected to be an absolutely loaded Lower State field.
Either way, Carolina Forest won’t be going in empty-handed. The trio of senior stars has boosted the Panthers back to prominence.
“It’s taken time, but where we are now, it’s way easier,” Hughes said. “Three, four years back, I wouldn’t be in this comfort zone. … I don’t quite feel like Phil Jackson on the sidelines calling the plays, but I feel pretty secure with what they can do and what they bring to the team.”