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4th quarter mistakes sting Portal
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The opening round of the GHSA playoffs is hardly a fitting stage for offensive blunders and poor free throw shooting, but that did not prevent the Portal Panthers (18-11) from using it as such.
    The Portal boys, despite carrying a lead into the fourth quarter of its home playoff game Saturday night in Portal, could not overcome costly errors on the offensive side and lackluster free-throw shooting, falling to the Pelham Hornets 56-52.
    “We had trouble
handling the ball when they put the press on and had a couple of turnovers,” said Portal coach Jeff Brannen. “When you combine turnovers and missed free throws, it is lethal down the stretch.”
    The Hornets (17-12) rallied from a six-point deficit in the game’s final seven minutes, outscoring Portal 18-8, to end the Panther season.
    “We had a lot of inexperience, and it showed in certain situations,” said Brannen. “You have to give Pelham credit. They fought back in the fourth quarter, turned up their pressure, and we turned the ball over.”
    The Panthers did not shoot well in what amounted to its final game of the 2010 season — neither did the Hornets — but was in contention, and leading, until untimely turnovers in the fourth quarter, coupled with a 43 percent success rate at the free-throw line, officially spelled doom.
    “Any time you get the ball inside, draw a fall, but miss two free throws, only to see them go down and score, it’s a four-point swing,” said Brannen.
    The Hornet’s fourth quarter surge was capped by a mid-court steal of guard Darius Thomas, who passed ahead to center Dominique Brown for an emphatic dunk — Brown led the Pelham effort with 14 points and six rebounds.
    Thomas also contributed 14 points to his victorious Hornets. 
    “In the end we started slowing down,” said senior guard Jamie Hagins. “[Pelham] starting getting steals and just took over the game. When you make mistakes, you lose the game.”
    Hagins led the Panthers and all scorers with at 16-point effort in his final high school game on the hardwood.
    Despite the Hornets’ late-game rally, both teams matched the type of showing expected in a matchup of No. 2 (Portal) and 3 (Pelham) seeds.
    High-energy, high-intensity play on both sides of the ball locked Portal and Pelham in a back-and-forth stalemate for the majority the game.
     After a 15-15 tie in the opening quarter, the Hornets pulled away to its then-largest lead of the contest, pacing the Panthers 29-23 at the half.
    The Hornets padded the scoreboard with back-to-back field goals — including a steal and dunk — by Brown, and two consecutive driving lay-ups by guards Thomas and Kenneth Randall. 
    Though the game would not be theirs, the third quarter belonged to Portal. The Panthers, just three minutes into the second-half, reversed fortunes by taking the lead and going up by seven points over the visiting Hornets.
    A fast-break layup — off an inbound pass — by Hagins propelled Portal to a 31-29 lead with little more than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
    Guard Corey Reese roared after coming down with an offensive rebound and knocking in a layup to push the score to 35-31. Moments later, Isiah Rich battled defenders to drop in another basket in the paint — Rich was fouled and successfully completed the three-point play, increasing the Panther lead to 38-31.
    The momentum ended there for Portal, as a string of mistakes and missed free throws took its toll in the game’s final quarter.
    Reese would end the night with nine points and seven rebounds — he shot one for seven from the charity stripe. Rich scored 12 points in the losing effort.
    When the play clock wound down on Portal’s playoff loss, it too ended the Panther season.
    “I thought the season was very successful,” said Brannen, whose young Panthers reached the playoffs despite replacing nine seniors from last year. “We are very proud of the players. To win 18 games is great. Tonight didn’t go our way, but we had a good season.”
    “People didn’t think we’d make it this far,” said Hagins. “We proved to people that we could.”
    Jeff Harrison can be reached at 912-489-9454.