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Wilcox ends Portal's run

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Wilcox ends Portal's run

    FORT VALLEY — Two huge rallies nearly keyed a Final Four victory for the Portal Panthers, but Wilcox County proved to be a bit to much as Portal fell by a score of 65-56 in Friday’s Class A public school semifinal.
    The Panthers (21-8) overcame double-digit deficits in both the second and fourth quarters, but the Patriots (25-3) pulled away in the final minutes to claim the victory and secure a spot in next week’s state championship game.
    “It’s disappointing, but this was still a great season,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “We had our ups and downs, but I think that we showed that we could play some pretty good basketball when we had to.”
    Jonathan Howard and Makail Grace showed exactly why their explosive duo combination has recorded 12 of Wilcox’s last 14 wins by at least 10 points. The 6-foot-6 Howard scored all of his game-high 24 points from inside the paint or at the free throw line, while Grace racked up 20 points and connected from behind the arc four times.
    Two of those 3-pointers helped Wilcox open up a 23-12 lead early in the second quarter, but just when it seemed like the Patriots were about to seize momentum, Portal came roaring back. Playing in his final game for the Panthers, Corey Reese helped get his team back in the game with a pair of buckets underneath.
    Minutes later, Stacey Morgan (15 points) and Robert Lee hit back-to-back 3’s to tie the game at 27-27. After a defensive stop, Lee knocked down another trey to give Portal its first lead of the game.
    With most Patriots standing a good two or three inches taller than their Panther counterparts, Portal struggled to create offense in the post or drive through the lane. The Panthers were forced to settle for outside jumpers and attempted 23 3-pointers on the night.
    “It’s tough when everyone is a little taller than you,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “We didn’t want to fall in love with the 3, but we had to start shooting more and more of them later in the game.”
    Portal took a slim 32-30 lead into halftime and stayed in front in the opening minutes of the third quarter, but another pair of 3-pointers by Grace triggered a 10-0 Patriots run. Two easy layups in transition by Calvin Rawls had Wilcox pulling away again, but a 3 from Portal’s Treston White cut the Panthers’ deficit down to 50-40 entering the final quarter.
    Only seven Panthers saw minutes in the contest, and constantly chasing the up-tempo Wilcox offense and racing through the Patriots’ press started to take its toll on Portal’s legs.
    Howard slammed home a dunk to get the Wilcox crowd going early in the fourth quarter and the Patriots opened up a 55-41 lead with six minutes to play when Portal made its last stand.
    “We haven’t been a deep team all year, but we’ve had the ability to run for four quarters,” Brannen said. “During a timeout in the fourth I just told the guys to open it up and just play. We showed that we could come back earlier in the playoffs against Marion (County) and we almost did it again.”
    Morgan knocked down a 3 to begin the charge and White followed with a layup in transition. Feeling the momentum swinging, Morgan hit from long range twice more to pull the Panthers within 55-52 with 3:53 to play.
     But that’s where the tank finally ran dry on Portal’s great postseason run.
    Two more buckets from Howard gave the Patriots a comfortable margin once again and another 3 from Morgan that could have made it a three-point game with one minute to go rattled around the rim before bouncing out.
    Grace hit five of six free throw attempts in the final minute to close out the Panthers.
    “I feel for our guys,” Brannen said. “They played as hard as they could. I don’t think anyone questions that.”
    Portal won’t take home a state title, but did get one final hero’s welcome.
    Nearly 300 fans, students and Portal faculty members made the journey to watch their Panthers play, and as the players exited the locker room following the game, they were greeted by a tunnel full of fans congratulating them on a great season.
    “We appreciate the support from everyone in the community,” Brannen said. “They’ve helped us all season long and that kind of support makes a playoff run like this that much more fun.”

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.

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