The biggest quarter of the biggest game in Carolina Forest girls basketball history ended unlike so many other games this winter.
The Panthers fell flat in the final moments, running out of gas against the defending Class 5A state champs. Goose Creek won 35-31 Monday, ending the best season in Carolina Forest’s 20-year existence in the third round.
“We got tight and pressed a little bit. We took some ill-advised shots. Maybe I should have called a timeout. We had the lead; we didn’t need to do anything nuts,” Carolina Forest coach Stacy Hughes said.
“We struggled offensively. It was a battle. But those last three minutes, we could have cleaned that up. At least maybe it would have ended a little different.”
Indeed, those last three minutes were anything but the highly efficient ball the Panthers had grown accustomed to. After snagging a 29-26 lead on Alexis Tomlin’s free throw with 3:55 to go that capped a 7-0 run, everything fell apart for Hughes’ team. The Gators scored the next nine points while forcing three more turnovers and four missed shots.
Cheyenne Pyles-Moultrie ended the scoring with a layup for the Panthers with a second left on the clock, but that bucket was somewhat telling for how the night went for Carolina Forest (20-5).
Tomlin, the South Carolina Basketball Coaches Association Class 5A Player of the Year, scored her team’s first 12 points and finished with a game-high 17 overall.
Guard Ellen Nardella had 12 points, all on 3-pointers, and her string of three long-range shots during a frenzied run in the fourth quarter gave the Panthers their late lead. Outside of that, no other Carolina Forest player scored in the game until Pyles-Moultrie’s uncontested layup.
And even though Carolina Forest held Goose Creek 29 points below their scoring average, the Gators got enough contributions to win the low-scoring affair. Coach Tim Baldwin got 14 points from All-State selection Shayla Nelson and eight each from Jasmine Stanley and Cali White.
Goose Creek also forced 30 turnovers, including several late that turned the tide one last time. It all meant that the Gators were headed back to Florence.
“It’s one of those things where they’ve been there, done that,” Baldwin said, referring to his squad’s postseason experience. “You’ve got to let them react. If you overcoach them, it can blow their mind.”
Said Tomlin: “To be in that game with three minutes left, we let it slip away with some free throws and bad passes. But we were in it until the very end.”
The final three minutes of the 2017-2018 season will probably sting for some time. But that’s because this was Carolina Forest’s run of a generation.
Making it this far was a bit of unprecedented history for the Panthers. Since the school moved to the state’s largest classification in 2008-2009, the team had not made it out of the second round. In fact, there was only one season – 2009-2010 – in which Hughes’ bunch won a single postseason game in that span. And since the school opened for the 1997-1998 school year it had only made it to the third round one time and never qualified for the state semifinals.
It won’t happen this year, either, and as close as the Panthers came added to the overall emotion of Monday’s defeat.
The Gators will return to Florence for the Lower State finals to face Spring Valley. Those two teams have combined to reach the state finals nine times in the last decade, proving they are every bit royalty in the state’s largest classification.
Carolina Forest rose to new heights, but ultimately failed to shake up the status quo.
“They’ve put us in a position where we’ve had some good leaders,” Hughes said of her senior trio of Tomlin, Nardella and Pyles-Moultrie. “Hopefully this is something we can maintain. We have huge shoes to fill. But we need to keep it at a highly competitive level. We don’t need any more years when we lost some kids or struggled with eighth graders.
“We’re in a good place, but these opportunities don’t come around very often.”