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Portal heads to Macon dreaming of a championship

    PORTAL — It’s been a long time coming, but for the first time in five decades, the Portal Panthers are returning to the Final Four.
    They are set to take on the Hancock Central Bulldogs (28-2), the No. 2 seed out of Region 7-A, in the semifinals of the GHSA Class A state playoffs at the Macon Centreplex today at 5:30 p.m., with the winner punching a ticket to the state championship game.
    Hancock offers an offensive look the Panthers haven’t seen too much of this season with two centers — James Watkins and Kammeon Holsey, who stand at 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, respectively — leading the Bulldog offense from the inside.
    “We haven’t played any teams with two big guys,” said Portal coach Jeff Brannen. “Mainly in (Class A), you play teams with one big guy. We just have to be able to control them and contain them.”
    The idea is to control the pace of the game with a full-court attack, led by PHS leading scorer David Buchannon and complimented by the outside shooting of Shane Reese and T.J. Busby, to try and force HCHS, who generally plays a six-man rotation, to keep up. The Panthers hope to wear down the Bulldog big men.
    “(Watkins and Holsey) are going to have a big impact,” said Brannen. “We’re going to have to utilize our guards and play an 84-foot game. We’re going to have to be able to run. We want to see what kind of shape their big guys are in. By running, you kind of take them out of the mix a little bit.
    “The bottom line is we’re just going to have to go out and play like we’ve been playing all year. We haven’t changed anything. We haven’t put in anything new. It’s just the 31st game, and we just have to go out and take it one game at a time.”
    A cause for concern for the Panthers has been defending the boards. Portal was out-rebounded by Terrell County in its 67-65 quarterfinal win. It will look to Mario Farris, Dan Farris, Justin Raymond and Chris Sapp to attack the glass against the Bulldogs.
    “The main thing we have been working on is boxing out and controlling the rebounds,” Brannen said. “We kind of took a step back against Terrell, and they beat us on boards, but we’ve been working on that and we’ve just got to come out and play.”
    With as much success as the Panthers (29-1) have had throughout the 2007-08 season, the team feels ready heading to the big stage.
    “We feel really confident,” said Mario Farris. “If everybody plays their roles and plays as a team, rebounds (and) plays defense, we should win.
    “Coach has been telling us all week how much it means to the community and how much we deserve to win the championship, so we’ve got to come out hungry and ready to play. … We’re the underdogs going into the game, so we’ve just got to go out there and prove everybody wrong like we’ve been doing all year.”
    The Panthers have had a taste of the larger arenas, playing games at Georgia Southern (against Statesboro High) and Columbus State (in Saturday’s matchup against Terrell) this season, so the big-time feel of the Macon Centreplex and the anticipated large crowd will be nothing new for Portal.
    “We’re just going to take it as business as usual,” said Buchannon. “We’re not going to worry too much. We’re going to go out and play team defense, and we should be alright.”
    If the Panthers succeed in today’s game, they will advance to the state championship for the first time since 1947. They will play the winner between No. 1 seeds Turner County and Wilkinson County.
    Hancock’s only two losses of the season came at the hands of Wilkinson. Hancock and Wilkinson split two decisions during the regular season, and WCHS knocked off the Bulldogs 70-57 in the Region 7-A championship.

    Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9404.

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