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Panthers take on Pelham in Portal

    After failing to advance to last season’s state basketball tournament, the Portal boys are right back where they know they belong.
    A strong finish to the regular season earned the Panthers (18-10) a bye through the opening round of the Region 3-A tournament and a region title game appearance has them holding a No. 2 seed as they host Pelham at 6 p.m. tonight in the opening round of the GHSA playoffs.
    Portal has been impressive down the stretch and has proved many of its critics wrong.
    Entering this season, the Panthers faced the daunting task of replacing nine seniors — and their top three scorers — from the 2009-10 squad.
    With a new roster full of underclassmen, there were some early bumps in the road, but now Portal is firing on all cylinders at the most crucial time of the season.
    “The team chemistry is much better now,” said Portal coach Jeff Brannen. “Executing well in practice is one thing, but our guys had to get used to playing with each other in games.”
    Now that everyone is on the same page, the Panthers are poised to make a run in the state tournament.
    Portal features a lineup loaded with many ways to take down any opponent.
    Stacy Morgan has emerged as one of the best scorers in the area in just his freshman year while Jamie Hagins — one of only two seniors for the Panthers — is a constant threat to catch fire from behind the arc.
    Corey Reese and Isiah Rich combine to form an imposing frontcourt and both Treston White and Robert Lee contribute plenty of offense coming off the bench.
    All of those options have the Panthers feeling confident about their chances, and a home game only adds to the comfort level.
    “Playing at home helps with focus,” said Brannen. “When you have to travel, it can get in the way of the routine that the team gets into. Not only do we get to play in front of the home crowd, but being familiar with everything that’s going on helps us to concentrate on the game.”
    There will be plenty for Portal to concentrate on tonight as the Hornets (16-12) come to town.
    Pelham enters the playoffs full of ambition as it is making its first appearance in the state tournament since the 2004-05 season.
    There don’t figure to be many mismatches in tonight’s game as both Pelham and Portal are comparable in team makeup and style of play.
    “They’re pretty similar to us,” said Brannen. “Pelham doesn’t have a whole lot of height, but they play tough and run a lot of motion sets like us.
    “The key for us is to just play our type of basketball and stay in our game. There’s been a little bit of a layoff since the region tournament, so we’ve been focusing on fundamentals. If we can stay sharp, I think we’ll be alright.”
    The winner of tonight’s game will advance to the second round where either Wilcox County or Brookstone will await.

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