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Portal advances to next round of state
Raymond's free throws clinch victory
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Portal's Mario Farris looks to score against Wilcox County Saturday night in the first round of the GHSA Class A state tournament. - photo by GRAYSON HOFFMAN/Herald Correspondent

            PORTAL — The Portal Panthers have not won a state playoff game for as long as anyone can remember, so Saturday night’s down-to-the-wire victory over the visiting Patriots of Wilcox County was extra sweet.

    Trailing by 11 at the end of the first half, Portal's leading scorer Fred Williams — on the assist from Marquon Jackson — went up for a buzzer beating 3-pointer. The ball soared through the net as a foul was called and Williams converted the foul shot. Rather than trailing by 11 going into halftime, the Panthers trailed by just seven.

            Trailing most of the first half, seemingly unable to keep up with the speed of the Patriots offense and the complexity of their full-court defensive press, the Panthers needed an answer.

            “That was the quickest team we’ve played all year long,” said Panther coach Jeff Brannen — who reached career win 200 with the playoff victory. “You have to give them a lot of credit. They were giving us fits in the first half… We just took care of the ball and buckled down on defense — the defense won the ball game for us tonight.”

            Trailing by seven heading into the third quarter, the gap quickly widened to twelve after a quick 3-pointer by Patriot Kerry Childs and a lay-up by Lorenzo Dennard. With Williams and his 13 first-half points sitting on the bench in foul trouble, Portal looked to starters Jackson and Mario Farris to step up and carry the team back into the contest.

            Jackson — who finished the game with 14 points and eight assists — took matters into his own hands in the third quarter. Portal went on a 16-4 late-fourth quarter run, in which Jackson accounted for five points and had three assists to three different teammates.

            “(Williams) got into foul trouble with four,” said Jackson, “So my main goal was to step up tonight. I did, and we went on to win.”

            The third quarter run gave the Panthers a 60-56 lead going into the fourth, on Justin Raymond’s buzzer-beating lay-up. Raymond came off the bench to put up eight points, and each basket would prove crucial. Late in the fourth quarter, after the two teams exchanged buckets, Raymond grabbed a key rebound and fed the ball to Farris on a fast break. Farris dunked it home giving Portal a 69-66 lead with 1:55 remaining.

    Clinging to a 71-69 lead, Patriot guard Childs fouled Raymond on a layup with 6.5 seconds on the clock. Having missed seven of their last eight free throws, Portal needed to secure the lead. Despite the roar of the Wilcox County crowd, Raymond sank both free throws and gave Portal the four point cushion they needed.

    Alfonzo Dennard’s last second layup was not enough for the Patriots, and the Portal Panthers won the game 73-71, advancing to the second round of the GHSA Class A state playoffs. They will take on the winner of the Taylor County/Atkinson game on Thursday at Savannah State University.

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