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Panthers on a roll
Portal wants to hold its spot at top of the mountain
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Portal's Corey Reese grabs a rebound against Bryan County. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/Herald file photo

       PORTAL — With half of the basketball season already gone, races are heating up all over the state as region schedules are in full swing.
    In Region 3-A, the season began with a handful of teams claiming to be the class of the league, but with nine consecutive victories — including seven straight against region opponents — the 12-1 Portal Panthers are the current kings of the mountain.
    “I think that we’re starting to come together and play much better as a team,” said Portal coach Jeff Brannen. “We still have some guys that we need to get back and there are some things that we need to improve on, but I like where we are right now. The important thing is to keep improving and peak at the right time.”
    While Portal managed only a state playoff appearance last season — the Panthers were defeated by Pelham in the first round of the Class-A playoffs — it was clear that last year’s young players were starting to develop into a force to be reckoned with. This time around, Portal is intent on doing a bit more damage.
    Leading the way for the Panthers is sophomore Stacey Morgan. The lanky guard burst onto the scene last season, quickly becoming Portal’s go-to option when it needed to create offense. Now in his second season at the high school level, Morgan is transforming into a nearly unstoppable force. In his last four games, Morgan has totaled 100 points — good for 25 per game — topping the 20-point mark in each game.
    “I’m feeling pretty confident with what I can do,” said Morgan. “I think that I’ve learned a lot since last season.”
    With only one senior starter healthy, the younger Panthers are all relying on the lessons learned during their 2011 playoff run to keep up the success.
    “I think that last year really helped the freshmen and sophomores,” said Brannen. “Going to the region final and having another week of practice preparing for state was all added time to work with the team. Not only is it more practice and playing time, but the pressure of it helps everyone to grow up a little.”
    Portal’s maturity has been much needed this season as the wins have done nothing to keep the Panthers healthy. One of Portal’s biggest threats at both ends of the floor, Isiah Rich sustained a broken foot in a preseason game and has yet to return to action. Deontre’ Williams and Jordan Cowart — both frontcourt players, like Rich — are also currently on the shelf, leaving just two healthy Panthers to play down low.
    Corey Reese and Joe Lockley have stepped up to the challenge, contributing offensively and with rebounds while staying out of foul trouble each night. The duo’s ability to play extended minutes each night has allowed Portal to sustain an inside presence and is a big part of the current hot streak.
    “I can’t say enough about Corey and Joe,” said Brannen. “But the whole team has really responded. Hopefully, we can get some more guys healthy and give us even more help in the next couple of weeks.”
    All of the hobbled Panthers are hopeful to return in the next 2-3 weeks, and Portal hopes that it can keep rolling until then.
    Just four years removed from a state final four appearance, the
expectations remain high for a program that has been very talented and consistent for the better part of a decade. There is still a long way to go this season, but if the Panthers continue to improve, the sky is the
limit.
    “We’ll go as far as we let ourselves go,” said Morgan. “I think that we’ve got a really good team. We’ve been playing well and winning these last few weeks and I think that if we keep working hard, that’s something that we can keep doing.”
   
    Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.