When the Providence High School girls basketball job came open like it had so many times in the recent years before, Jennifer Bean sensed this was the right time and she was the ideal candidate to help turn around a program that had fallen on very hard times of late.
Bean had coached many of the Providence players through the ranks at Jay M. Robinson Middle School, where she had much success with virtually the same lineups the Panthers were putting on the floor.
But when those players reached Providence, they were falling victim to a losing culture. They had posted a 2-23 record when the current juniors were freshmen during the 2015-16 season. The Panthers were 78-166 since the 2006-07 season, a stretch that produced no winning records, a dismal 39-95 record in conference play and just a handful of playoff appearances that ended in losses.
Bean knew generating the same success she had developed in middle school would be difficult to achieve at the high school level. She was also inheriting a team not used to winning, and that by itself was going to take a lot of work. In one of sport’s grandest cliches, Bean was going to have to change the culture of Panther basketball, but that’s exactly what she did.
This year, Bean started with a young nucleus of players that included four of the Panthers’ top six scorers from the 2016-17 roster, when Bean went 5-20 as a first-year Providence coach.
The team started out well, but the Panthers were dealt a huge blow four games into the season when Paulina Armendariz – the lone senior on the roster – tore her ACL. It was the second consecutive season she had gone down with an injury, but this one proved to be the ultimate sacrifice as Armendariz – an aspiring college soccer player – would be forced to miss her second straight basketball and soccer seasons and put her college scholarship opportunities on hold for now.
While the loss was devastating to Armendariz and to the Panthers in terms of leadership, it also marked a turning point in the year.
Around the same time, Bean said she could sense a change was coming.
“Our turning point was pretty early on in the year,” she said. “We set some team goals and we were on our way up to the jamboree in Mooresville. I had everyone write down three team goals and two individual goals. In my mind I’m thinking if we can get to 10 wins I’m thrilled, and that was what a lot of the players wanted. But when we went up there to play I knew then we could get more than 10 wins and this could be a very good year.”
Part of the belief was due to the starting lineup being together for another year. Juniors Lili Bowen (9.2 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game), Jaylynn Askew (8.0 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals) and Grace Shires (six points and two rebounds) and sophomore Cameron Mulkey (six points and two rebounds) all played pivotal roles during this season.
The starting lineup was rounded out by freshman point guard Nyla McGill, who came to Providence as the leading scorer in Jay M. Robinson Middle School history. This year, she averaged a team-best 10.1 points, 5.8 assists and 3.5 steals per game to go with 6.3 rebounds.
“Nyla brings a different intensity and that’s something we didn’t have last year,” Mulkey said. “We didn’t have that one set ball handler last year that we knew we could get the ball to and they could get it up the court in pressure. She was able to do that and run the team well.”
Those five teamed with reserve Marlow Chapman – a sophomore who averaged nearly five points and four rebounds per game as the sixth man.
Junior Erin Miller, sophomores Audrey Lytle and Kat Moody and freshman Lauren Cope played key reserve roles and are all back next season. In fact, all of this year’s roster will return next year – along with a pair of incoming freshmen point guards and a sophomore who was removed from the team this year due to disciplinary reasons.
And together they will have a lot to build on.
The Panthers went 15-12, the program’s first winning season since anyone who was asked at the school can remember, and at least the first above .500 finish any time during the past 14 seasons when the Panthers have served more of the conference laughing stock than the legit contender they have turned into.
One of the team’s biggest accomplishments came late in the season. The Panthers had qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the 2014-15 season, but were matched up with Myers Park – a team Bean and her players admitted carried a little extra mystique into the matchup.
Providence had proved they could hang with the Mustangs – losing by three points in late November and just one point nearly a month later – but hadn’t yet figured out to close out games late. Bean said they could have won both Myers Park games, but they made crucial mistakes in both games that cost them.
“It’s been a very, very long time since we’ve beat Myers Park,” Bowen said. “I don’t want to say they were a dynasty, but they were good and we hadn’t beat them in forever.”
It had actually been 17 straight losses dating back to Jan. 18, 2008 since Providence had beat Myers Park, but all of that would go out the window on Feb. 20 as the Panthers traveled to Myers Park to open the playoffs.
McGill tallied 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists and Askew – who missed a layup at the end of regulation that would have won the game – was sensational, totaling 13 points and adding a career-high 21 rebounds in a double-overtime 60-56 win.
It was the Panthers’ first playoff win that anyone on campus can remember and a huge stepping stone and confidence booster.
“The fact that it was Myers Park that we beat to win our first playoff game in who knows how long was thrilling because it’s always hard to win there,” Bean said. “That was our exclamation point for all we’ve been working toward this year. We came up the stairs from our locker room following the game and there were parents and JV players and everyone was cheering and the girls started crying. It was the coolest thing for them to experience what it feels like to be a winning team for a change, and to do it there made it that much more special.”
And it’s a feeling the Panthers hope to carry into next year when they will no longer be the bottom feeder in a very tough conference.
“The Myers Park win was a step in the right direction,” Bowen said. “We know we can do it now and we know that we can beat any team if we practice hard and if we play well together.
“We know we have to keep working, but I think the chemistry part is really important and we already have that, so we’re going to keep working hard and keep working hard together. It’s going to be fun to come into next year.”