The Portal Panthers used a 19-0 first half run to pull away from No. 4 seed Clinch County and advance to the second round of the state Class 1-A playoffs with a 61-37 victory. The victory is the Panthers first in the state playoffs since 2015.
The Panthers had plenty of opportunities to pull away from the much smaller Clinch County Panthers. The Portal lead remained between 14-20 points for most of the game, but afterward head coach Jeff Brannen felt it was still a big step for his freshmen led team.
“With a team as young as we are getting that first round win in huge,” said Brannen. “You could tell it was the first state playoff game for these freshmen. I feel like defensively we executed what we wanted to do. We took their top scorer (Jeremiah Williams, 5 points) out of the game. We set the tone early on defense, but I think we just rushed things a little too much on offense.”
The game was actually tied 5-5 in the first quarter before the Panthers went on a 12-0 run to close the quarter thanks to the offense of freshman Elijah Coleman and the defense of senior Fred Spells.
Coleman had 15 of his game-high 22 points in the first half to pace the Panthers. Spells made his presence known early and often. The 6-7 center blocked five shots in the first quarter and altered many others. He would finish with a couple double with 14 blocked shots and 12 rebounds.
“Elijah did a good job of helping us pull away there in the first half,” said Brannen. “I felt like when Fred got a few blocks early on that really altered their shooting and made them think twice about coming into the lane.”
While Coleman dominated the first half, fellow freshman Amir Jackson took over in the second half. The 6-5 Jackson took advantage of a big height difference attacking the rim and coming through with 12 of his 17 points in the second half.
“We made an effort to get Amir going in the second half,” said Brannen. “I feel like he responded well. He was aggressive and did a good job of either finishing or getting fouled.”
The Panthers have the luxury of playing at home throughout the playoffs until they match up with another No. 1 seed where a coin toss will decide the venue. This year only the state championship game will be played on a neutral site.
Coleman led the Panthers with 22 points, while Jackson added 17. Jeremy Bell led Clinch County with 10 points. Up next the Panthers will host Pelham Saturday at a yet to be determined time.