CLAXTON — The Lady Tigers of Claxton have faced off against region rival Portal four times this season. All four times, Claxton has been left standing after the dust settled.
Monday night’s 64-55 win over the Panthers was the latest in the series and was also the most important as it came in the first round of the Class A public school state tournament.
“This was a great win and we’re certainly happy to get through the first round,” Claxton coach Laura Aziz said. “I feel a little bad for Portal. They’re our rival, but it’s kind of tough eliminating a team you know really well.”
Much like the Region 3-A tournament contest between the teams last week, the Panthers (12-14) made things tough on the favored Tigers (24-5).
Breyonna Raymond (20 points) nailed a quick 3 and helped her team play to a 14-14 draw in the first quarter.
One of the keys to Claxton’s success this year has been the virtually unlimited line of girls waiting to step up and contribute.
Nyeisha Kirkland was the latest to take the spotlight.
The junior guard exploded for 25 points to lead all scorers while teammate Kashara Moody added 14 more.
Keri Brown was in foul trouble throughout the night, but came up with some big fourth quarter points.
Portal rallied to within 46-36 as the final period began. Claxton ran nearly an entire minute off the clock before Brown worked inside for an easy bucket. Brown scored again on the next possession before fouling out midway through the quarter.
The Panthers continued to fight and a 3 from Chandelier Morgan (15 points) brought Portal within 52-46 with 3:20 to play.
“I’m proud of our girls,” Portal coach Cliff Hubbard said. “It’s tough with Claxton. That’s why they were a top seed in our region.
“We’ll look at the positive of getting to the state playoffs for a second straight year and hopefully build off of that next season.”
Morgan’s 3 brought the Portal crowd to life, but Kirkland quickly extinguished the flame.
Kirkland hit a pair of free throws to stop Portal’s momentum and drained another to build the lead back to 59-47 with 1:21 to play. Two more free throws with 31.2 seconds remaining put the game out of reach.
“I thought we responded well in the fourth quarter,” Aziz said. “Portal got the better of us coming out of halftime. That’s definitely something we have to work on if we want to get through the next round.”
Monday’s win marked the second consecutive season in which the Tigers have advanced through the first round.
Last season, Claxton dropped a quarterfinal matchup against Towns County. The Tigers now get a chance to redeem themselves in the Elite Eight. Claxton will either host Emanuel County Institute or travel to Dooly County Wednesday to battle for a spot in the state semifinals.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.