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Bound for the finals
Portal tops Wheeler to advance to region championship
021714 BKB PORTAL HOOPS 01 WEB
Portal's Trent Thomas, left, draws a foul from Wheeler County's Quin Williams while scoring in the paint during the second quarter of the GHSA Region 3-A semifinals on Monday in Soperton. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    SOPERTON — After Portal received a big scare in its Region 3-A tournament opener last weekend, the Panthers didn’t allow for nearly as much drama Monday afternoon.
    The Panthers (24-3) nursed a small lead through the first three quarters, then powered past Wheeler County (14-13) down the stretch, earning a 67-58 win and a spot in tonight’s region championship game.
    “We played well, especially on defense,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “We knew it was going to take a good effort and we were able to do that.”
    There was no shortage of Panthers getting in on the act.
    Trent Thomas led all scorers with 19 points. Stacey Morgan was right behind Thomas with 18 while Marquis Wells scored 13 and Robert Lee pitched in 10 more.
    The quartet accounted for 22 of Portal’s final 24 points as the Panthers hit the accelerator to pull away from the Wildcats in the closing minutes of action.
    “A lot of guys played well,” Brannen said. “I really liked how (Wells) stepped up. That’s what’s good about having an experienced team. You’ve got guys who score all the time, but you also have guys who play their roles and can have big nights when they need to.”
    Early on, Wheeler County was able to go blow-for-blow with the Panthers.
    Devin Bryant and Malik Carter — who scored 14 points each — started off hot from the field and Quin Williams (12 points) battled for tough points in the paint.
    The Wildcats played five guards for the majority of the game, trying to negate a lack of size by exploiting a speed and quickness advantage.
    The strategy worked in the first half as several Portal defenders were caught out of position, but adjustments led to the Panthers drawing five charging calls in the second half and throwing Wheeler County out of its rhythm.
    “We play with two posts,” Brannen said. “Having them play out on the perimeter was a challenge that I thought they handled very well.”
    Portal jumped ahead early and the only time the Wildcats were able to draw even was on a buzzer-beating 3 by Bryant to end the first quarter.
    Morgan took over in the second period, hitting field goal attempts including a long 3 on three consecutive possessions to stake his Panthers to a 32-28 advantage at halftime.
    A pair of jumpers by Wells late in the third period helped extend Portal’s lead to 47-40 heading into the final quarter.
    The Panthers put things on ice midway through the fourth quarter. Thomas converted a three-point play, Morgan hit a pair of free throws, Thomas connected on a short jumper, and Lee buried a deep 3.
    In just over a minute of game time, the Wildcats went from being in contention to staring at a 63-50 deficit.
    Wheeler County didn’t score again until just 1:20 remained and all hopes of a comeback were lost.
    Thomas put an exclamation point on the victory, slamming home an alley-oop as the final buzzer sounded.
    Tonight, the Panthers will take on either Calvary Day or Treutlen at 7:30 p.m. in the region championship game. A win for Portal will mark a third consecutive title.
    “It’s great for our seniors,” Brannen said. “They finished second their first year, so they’ve been here every year of their careers. It would be nice to send them off with another championship.”

    Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.