CLAXTON — When Portal and Claxton get together, nothing ever comes easy.
The Portal Panthers stormed into the Tiger’s Den Friday night with an edge in experience and in the Region 3-A standings, but had to rally over the final few minutes to claim a 55-44 victory.
Stacey Morgan scored nine of his 17 points in the fourth quarter and Trent Thomas came on strong to notch a game-high 20 points, spurring on the Panthers (13-3, 4-1) in a rivalry game that has produced plenty of drama over the last few seasons.
“Stacey and Trent really took over when we needed them,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “(Claxton) was running two and three guys at Stacey, but he was still able to hit some big shots and Trent came through with a few big free throws down the stretch.”
Entering the game, the contest didn’t seem to be so tight by simply looking at the statistics.
Claxton (7-8, 2-3) has spent most of the season breaking in a young and mostly inexperienced roster and has taken a few lumps while competing in one of the toughest regions in Class A. Portal has spent most of the season at the top of the power rankings and is looking to put on an encore to last season’s run to the Final Four.
The Panthers stuck to the script early on in jumping out to a quick lead, but Claxton rattled off a 13-2 run to pull ahead early in the second quarter.
“We’re always disappointed with a loss, but we played a good game,” Claxton coach Eric Bluestein said. “We know that things are going to be tough in region play. We want to keep improving, but it was good to see our guys play hard and play well against a really good Portal team.”
Portal took a 23-19 lead into halftime, but couldn’t extend its advantage as the second half dragged on.
Cornelius Taylor and Darvis Small scored 13 points each, frequently driving into the lane to score tough points inside.
Claxton stayed within striking distance well into the fourth quarter and took a 35-34 lead midway through the final period on a 3-pointer by Kyle Vliett.
But Vliett’s 27-footer accounted for the only Tiger lead of the second half as Morgan took over. The Panthers’ star senior guard drained a 3 of his own and connected on all four of his free throws down the stretch as Claxton went cold from the field.
The final score didn’t break the Tigers’ way, but Claxton was able to add another page to its record books.
At the 4:41 mark of the first quarter, Taylor drained a 3-pointer to put him over the 1,000-point mark for his career.
“It was good to finally get to that mark,” Taylor said. “But winning would have been even better. Right now, We’re just focused on improving and playing well against everyone else in the region.”
Lady Tigers 58, Lady Panthers 24
Claxton made short work of Portal in the girls game, allowing just six points in the first half while cruising to a 58-24 victory.
The Lady Tigers (14-3, 4-1 Region 3-A) were led by Keri Brown’s 22 points. Devonna Brewton added 12 more and a total of nine Tigers recorded points on the night.
“I think this was a big game for us,” Claxton coach Laura Aziz said. “Last time out against Jenkins County, we didn’t close out the game like we wanted to. I thought we did a better job of playing a complete game this time.”
Claxton dominated throughout, but couldn’t find a way to quiet Portal’s Breyonna Raymond. Continuing her breakout season, Raymond scored 13 for the Tigers (7-9, 2-3), but was the only Panther to notch more than three points on the night.
Shiann Hagins returned to action after sitting out of Tuesday’s loss at Calvary Day, but put up just two points in the losing effort.
Portal heads back home for a doubleheader with Turner County, beginning with the girls game at 5 p.m. Claxton’s boys and girls head to Brooklet this evening, with the girls tipping off action against Southeast Bulloch at 6 p.m.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.