In Krystal Huggins’ first season as the McKinley girls basketball coach, Panthers on 11-game win streak, one victory away from undefeated district season _lowres

Krystal Huggins

Most coaches tell you they are the product of the programs they came from. Krystal Huggins is no exception.

That’s why the first-year McKinley girls basketball coach is stressing the same fundamentals she was taught.

“There are things you have to do in order to be successful that don’t change,” Huggins said. “Defense and rebounding are two of those things.

“It doesn’t matter what the other team does. If you take care of business, play defense and box out, you can give yourself a chance to win. I was taught that as a player, and I believe that to this day.”

The reasoning is sound and so are the Panthers (21-8, 9-0), who have won 11 straight games going into their regular-season finale against Broadmoor on Thursday night. Game time is set for 6:30 p.m. at Broadmoor Middle School.

If Huggins’ name sounds familiar, there’s a reason. She was a mainstay on Southern Lab’s teams that won Class 1A state titles from 2002-04. She went on to play at Southern University and then got a master’s degree from Grambling.

The 29-year-old Huggins went to work in the insurance industry before becoming a teacher at McKinley Middle Magnet. She was an assistant to one of East Baton Rouge Parish supervisors, Lynn Williamson, to start her coaching career.

“People kept asking me why I didn’t coach,” Huggins said. “When I first got into teaching, I really didn’t think about coaching. Lynn Williamson brought me in as an assistant, and I learned a lot from her. That was the start.”

Skeptics wondered how it would play out when Huggins was hired at McKinley without previous high school experience in the Baton Rouge area.

“I was told it would be hard because I’m not that much older than the players,” Huggins said. “I knew coaching high school players would be different than coaching on the middle school level. None of that has been an issue. This team gets along well with each other and with me.

“The hardest part was getting them to buy into the system. Playing defense and rebounding are hard, and they’re not individual things, like scoring. When you want to win — and they did — you figure it out.”

Huggins said she’s taken the conditioning and defensive aspects of the game coach Henry Combs taught at Southern Lab and tried to meld them together with the toughness she learned from SU coach Sandy Pugh and the drive of her AAU coach, former Christian Life coach Robert Dallimore, who is now at Arkansas-Little Rock.

She said it all came together for the Panthers after a 12-point loss to Class 2A Madison Prep in late December.

“Madison Prep is a team we’d played a couple of times over the summer and the girls really wanted that one,” Huggins said. “We’d split with them over the summer and girls all know each other.

“The next day they were silent at the start of practice. I am tough on them. We talked, and they knew what we needed to do.”

The result of that loss/regeneration is the 11-game winning streak.

Two freshmen, 5-foot-9 Alexis Horne and 6-2 Caira Wren, help lead the Panthers. Horne averages 20 points a game, while Wren adds 10 points and 12 rebounds a game.

Junior Troy Boss (5-6) is a 3-point specialist who averages 15 points a game. The lone senior, 5-3 Megan Sharper, spearheads the defense along with 5-6 junior Zoie Harris.

Despite having a young team, Huggins said she liked her team’s chances of winning the District 5-5A title all along. With that goal accomplished, Huggins said skeptics shouldn’t count Panthers out in the Class 5A playoffs that begin next week.

“If we focus on what we need to do, we can give ourselves a chance in any game,” Huggins said. “I believe that.”