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Panthers finally figure out ECI
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    SAVANNAH – The Portal Panthers have now gone further in tournament play than any previous Portal basketball team.
    Controlling the game from the outset, the Panthers breezed to a 60-46 win over Emanuel County Institute Friday night at the Savannah Country Day gym.
    The victory in the first round of the state tournament put Coach Jeff Brannen’s team in the championship game of the region 3-A tournament.
    The Panthers (21-7) will play the winner of Friday night’s late game between top-seed Calvary (22-4) and Savannah Country Day tonight at 7:30 p.m.
    The Cavaliers, who won the Region 2 regular season race, were expected to beat the Hornets for a fourth time this season. While Country Day has played the Cavs tough this season they went into the game a decided underdog after losing 6-foot-5 starting center Bradley King with an injury in Thursday night’s win over Jenkins County.
    “We’re going to have a chance to do something special,” said Brannen who is in his 16th year with the Panthers. “We’ve never won a region championship. We’ve finished third the last two years.I expect we’ll play Calvary. That’s what I’m kind of planning on, especially with Country Day losing their big kid.”
    The Panthers lost to Calvary twice in the regular season, by three points in overtime at Calvary and by 10 on their home floor.
    “To beat Calvary — or Country Day if they win — we’re going to have to continue to play the way we’ve been playing,” said Brannen. “We’re going to have to have good shot selection, play solid defense and limit our turnovers.”
    The Panthers did that in rolling over the Bulldogs who were up 10-9 only to see Portal score seven points in the final 90 seconds of the first quarter.
    That was the start of an 18-6 run that gave the Panthers a 27-16 bulge with 3:20 left in the first half.
     “We knew going in we had to get the lead,” said Brannen, “otherwise they would have stalled and spread the floor on us.
    “Then we changed defenses, going to a 2-3 matchup, and we shadowed number five (LaCollie Gordon). He averaged 25 points in two games against us.”
    Gordon had 12 points, getting only four in the first half, as he was stymied by the Panther defense.
    In the meantime Portal was getting a game high 22 points from Fred Williams with Mario Farris added 18. Dontae Richards also had 12 points for ECI.
    “Our point guard (Marquon Jackson) did an excellent job when we made our second and third quarter runs,” said Brannen. “We had excellent spacing, and we did a good job of moving the ball and taking advantage of the opportunities.”
    The Panthers led 28-18 at the half, but were up only 36-29 with 3:32 left in the third period when they went on a 10-3 run to close the quarter. Their biggest lead of the night was 16 points, first at 48-32 and later at 54-38 with three minutes to play.