MILLEN — For the Claxton boys, Friday was quite the roller coaster ride.
Squaring off against Wheeler County in the semifinals of the Region 3-A, the Tigers (18-6) jumped out to a big lead early, nearly let things slip away, then finished strong for a 50-42 victory to advance to tonight’s championship game.
“This was a huge win for us,” CHS coach Eric Bluestein said. “We hung in there and showed that we’re a veteran team that can win tough games.”
Claxton led, 20-7, after the first quarter and notched the first five points of the second quarter before the Bulldogs turned the tables.
Working past the Tigers’ pressure defense, Wheeler County started to pound the ball inside. Jordan McDonald camped out in the post and overpowered the Claxton frontcourt, notching all eight of his points in a 15-3 Bulldog run that left the Tigers up by only 28-22 at halftime.
“We’ve struggled with size all year,” Bluestein said. “(Wheeler) was able to find something that worked and ran the same play a few times in a row for easy points. I thought that we did a good job of adjusting and taking that away later on.”
As the second half began, Claxton’s offense got back into a rhythm, but Wheeler County kept the pace.
Labron Glover scored six of his 12 points in the third quarter, but James Green (8 points) hit back-to-back layups and Malik Carter hit the third of his four 3-pointers to claw the Bulldogs within 37-35 going into the fourth.
Wheeler County cut the lead to one point twice in the final eight minutes, but the Tigers were able to respond. Zenas Moore — who led Claxton with 13 points — drove the lane for a bucket to put the Tigers up 43-40 with just under five minutes to go. Then, after Claxton killed over 1:30 of game time with a stall offense, Moore got inside again to make it a two possession game.
The Claxton defense that had been picked apart in the middle of the game locked down and sealed the win. Glover drew a critical charge and pulled down two defensive rebounds in the last four minutes and the Bulldogs got just one second-chance basket in the final quarter.
“This is a team full of veteran guys,” Bluestein said. “They’ve had success for the last couple of years and they know how to win. They got a challenge, but they knew how to respond.”
The Tigers clinched at least a No. 2 seed and a home game in the Class A state tourney.
Tonight at 7:30, Claxton goes for its second region tournament championship in three seasons against Portal.
Lady Tigers 47, Lady Hornets 39
Immediately after the Claxton boys’ win, the Lady Tigers clinched their own spot in the Region 3-A title game.
Claxton sprinted out to a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes and never looked back in a 47-39 victory over Savannah Country Day.
“We were right where we needed to be coming into the region tournament,” CHS coach Laura Aziz said. “We just had to keep playing at this level and we’ve done that so far.
“I’m very proud of our girls. I thought at the beginning of the season that we had a chance to do some things and all of their hard work has made it happen.”
Senior Polly Murray led the way for the Tigers (20-5), scoring 13 points. Freshman guard Jazmine Price had 12.
Tonight, the Tigers take on Calvary Day at 6 p.m. for the region title.
For all of Claxton’s success, the Lady Cavaliers have been a thorn in their side. Calvary won both regular-season meetings, a 70-48 decision in Savannah midway through the season and a 57-52 nail-biter in Claxton on Jan. 27.
“We played them tough in Claxton and did a lot of things well,” Aziz said. “It’s tough for anyone to beat a team three times in a season, so we’ll go out and play our best game and see what happens.”
Portal 71, Jenkins County 49
In Friday’s nightcap, Portal crushed Jenkins County by a count of 71-49, avenging a regular season loss from a few weeks prior.
The Panthers (24-3) made it clear early on that they wouldn’t be denied.
“All of the pressure really came off after the first game (of the region tournament),” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “Once you play a game and know that you’re into the state tournament, you can loosen up a little.”
Coming on strong at the end of his freshman season, Akeem Oglesby stole the show again, leading Portal with 21 points — his second 20-plus point effort in as many games. Stacey Morgan poured in 17 while Corey Reese and Isiah Rich had 14 and 11, respectively.
Tonight at 7:30, the Panthers will vie for the region title as they take on Claxton. The teams split the regular season series, each winning on the other’s home court. Tonight's winner will secure a No. 1 seed in the Class A state tournament.
With a 24-3 record and a sub-region title, it comes as no surprise that Portal was a common name on the roster when the All-Region 3B-A squads were announced.
A year after a breakout freshman campaign, Stacey Morgan followed up with an outstanding sophomore season to earn first team honors.
Senior Corey Walker notched a spot on the second team and was joined by freshman Akeem Oglesby.
While plenty of talent filled both the first and second teams, one Panther stood out above everyone in the sub-region as Corey Reese was recognized as Player of the Year.