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Panthers-Blue Devils game unites communities

        Now that's what prep basketball is all about.
        In a game that just screamed "community," the Statesboro Blue Devils took on the Portal Panthers Tuesday night in Georgia Southern's Hanner Fieldhouse.
        The cool Friday nights of the football season may have passed us by, but that doesn't mean that Bulloch County can't rally around its local prep sports scene. With more storylines than a presidential election, the game had a little something for everybody.
        Sometimes, when folks from Bulloch County come together, there are more important things than the final score. Sometimes, a game can be a backdrop for something much bigger.

The players
        The athletes in Tuesday night’s game certainly gave Bulloch County plenty to talk about.
        Take Cassandra McBride, a guard who played her first three years of prep hoops at Statesboro, but transferred to Portal after moving up the road with her family to play out her senior year as a Panther.
        McBride had the opportunity to go head-to-head against her friends and former teammates. What better stage than on the hardwood at Hanner in front of both communities?
        Then there's the Buchannons. David and Kendra moved to Portal recently, and both have had an immediate impact on Portal basketball. While they have not experienced the Statesboro/Portal, rivalry before Tuesday's double-header, they got a pretty big taste of what the community is all about.
        Welcome to Bulloch County, Buchannon family.
        As if it weren't already enough of a family affair, Portal coach Jeff Brannen's daughter happens to be playing in her first year as a Lady Panther.
        Let's not forget about Statesboro's Monet Bennett, who as a senior gets one more chance to show Bulloch County what she can do before she heads up to Atlanta to represent her community as a Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket. Playing in Hanner was just a taste of what's to come for her.
        Eric Ferguson (Statesboro) and Mario Farris (Portal), both seniors, have been wowing Bulloch County with their physical, athletic post play, aggressive styles and acrobatic dunks for a while. Being able to do it in front of the whole community in Hanner was just the icing on the cake.
       Living just a stones throw apart along HWY 80, all those kids know each other. The games were about much more than a tally in the win column or a mark in the loss column. It was part friendship, part kinship, part rivalry and, of course, the community as a whole.

The coaches
        Lee Hill has been coaching the Statesboro Blue Devils for over 30 years and has racked up over 600 wins on his resume. Jeff Brannen — a virtual newcomer to the coaching fraternity — reached a career milestone during the 2006-07 season when he took his Panthers to the state playoffs and notched his 200th career win against Wilcox County. Both Bulloch County coaches give their respective towns a reason to cheer, but the similarities don't stop there.
        Brannen played his high school ball at SHS, and he was coached by — you guessed it — Lee Hill. The two are friends to this day, and they always have plenty of local hoops to talk about.
        Brannen — with ties to both programs — feels torn between his alma mater and his Panthers, but that hasn’t stopped the friendly rivalry from being competitive. Before Tuesday’s contest, Brannen had never beaten his former mentor, coming closest in the 2006-07 season.
        The rivalry will continue shortly when Statesboro travels to Portal for Part II of the of the 2008 edition between the two teams.

The fans
        Perhaps the biggest motivating factor in holding the game at Hanner was the rabid fans from both teams.
        In 2006, Portal’s gym was packed out for the contest, and when it was held at Statesboro High, they had to start turning folks away after the gym reached its capacity. The only Bulloch County venue that could accommodate the large and vocal crowd — Hanner.
        Blue Devils fans wanted to see their team continue its dominance and fans of Portal (Class A) were rabidly anticipating a round of David vs Goliath.
        A friendly rivalry it may be, that didn't stop some mid-game hijinks. Hanner was evacuated after the start of the third quarter when some pranksters decided to pull the fire alarm.
        Kids will be kids.
        While the game has no real impact on Region standings or playoff seedings for either team, the players, coaches and fans all knew that there was something special about this one.
       Playing on the big stage brought together Bulloch County residents for a game full of intrigue, storylines and excitement and sometimes, whoever won or lost just doesn’t matter all that much.

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