CHARLOTTE – As Jennifer Bean and her assistant coaches emerged from the Providence girls locker room Feb. 29, she couldn’t help but be a little emotional.
That locker room is the exact place this Providence run started – coming from a losing record to reaching the state tournament’s Great Eight for the first time in school history.
When Bean took over before the 2016-17 season, the Panthers hadn’t had a winning season in at least 11 years. The team immediately proceeding hers had suffered through a 2-23 year.
Bean’s first team was just 5-20, and 2-12 in conference, but she’d already planted the seed to a winning culture by changing the locker room.
When she first arrived, Bean said the team needed a home of their own, not the dingy physical education lockers they were using before.
So Bean, her husband, Andy, and a couple others got permission to tear down the old lockers and debris out of a mostly unused storage area.
Before long, they installed nice lockers and Providence’s padded bench chairs.
With that locker room looking the part, Bean started working on winning on the court.
In 2017-18, Bean produced the first winning team (15-12) at Providence in so long nobody at the school really remembers when the last one was.
The Panthers were 20-6 last year. This season, after knocking off East Forsyth 52-42 in the third round of the NCHSAA playoffs, the Panthers are 25-2 and moving further than any team in school history and further than even Bean herself would have imagined.
“This is unbelievable,” she said with the team celebration continuing behind her. “If you’d asked me six months ago if I’d be standing here, I probably would have laughed. This group plays for each other, they’re unselfish and they truly care about each other’s success.”
The Panthers got behind early, 5-1, but after star guard Nyla McGill scored her seventh point, Providence took a 9-8 lead they held until just before halftime.
Then, East Forsyth got hot and used a 6-2 spurt to take the 18-16 halftime lead as Providence missed free throws, turned the ball over and missed a lot of easy shots.
But it was a different Panther team as they came out focused and scored the first six points of the third quarter. After senior guard Audrey Lytle’s 3-pointer put them up 20-18, the Panthers would never look back.
McGill, a Yale commit, led the way. The junior point guard recently went over her 1,000th career point and 500th career rebound. She already had accrued over 500 assists.
In the win over East Forsyth, McGill scored 22 points to go with seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals despite constant pressure and contact as teams tried to slow her.
“She gets hit, she gets grabbed, she gets elbowed, she gets pushed all the time,” Bean said.
McGill kept her cool and was the only Panther in double figures, but Amari Davis’s nine points led six others who scored and contributed to the win.
“If we made our free throws, we’d be beating teams by 20,” Bean said. “I know they’re tired and there’s pressure, but still. It’s frustrating. But they play hard, they’re tough and somehow we’ve been pulling out wins.”
The Panthers will get another shot at a win March 3 when 24-5 Vance comes calling (after South Charlotte Weekly’s press deadline).
The Cougars have only lost to Mallard Creek (twice) and Hopewell in state. They will offer a big test, although the game will be at Providence.
“At this point, we’re home, which is great,” Bean said. “They have two really big girls and they’re just a really good basketball team. They’re solid, they are going to hammer the post on us because we’re smaller and they have one guard who can shoot. We have to fix the rebounds. We let them get way too many offensive rebounds tonight, but we have Monday to work on that.”
Vance has already beaten Butler, last year’s West Regional champion, by 38 points and knocked off second-seeded Glenn this postseason, but all teams are really good this deep in the playoffs.
Providence is proving they belong, too.
“Something I was very concerned with was strengthening our schedule, so we played a lot of tough games early,” Bean said. “ I think that’s helped us a ton down the stretch as we’re learning to win close games.”