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Plenty for Panthers to prove this year
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Portal's Tyler Budgett, front, Akeem Oglesby, middle, and Trent Thomas celebrate as the Panthers put awasy a game against Bryan County last December. All three are gone this season as a whole new cast of Panthers get their turn to shine for Portal. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

    Coming off an 87-73 loss in the Elite Eight round of the state playoffs, this year’s Portal Panthers basketball team won’t have the same look as years prior.
    The Panthers’ starting five from last year—a team that finished with an overall record of 21-8—won’t be returning this year.
    That means Panthers’ head coach Jeff Brannen will have a relatively inexperienced squad starting for him in the 2015-2016 campaign.
    “The guys that we have coming back, collectively, probably averaged five points per game. We’re totally rebuilding,” Brannen said. “It’s going to take us awhile, but we have to get ready.”
    The Panthers’ inexperienced team will be put to the test early. Brannen said he believes in scheduling a difficult non-region schedule in order to get his team prepared for the season.
    The test begins with the home regular-season opener against Montgomery Dec. 1, then the team travels on the road to face Statesboro Dec. 4.
    “We’ve always played tough teams. It’s going to be a tough task but as long as we can get better and learn from our mistakes we will be OK,” Brannen said.
    Over the past few years, the Panthers have been near the top of Class A basketball. The Panthers have appeared in four consecutive region championship games, winning three.
    Two years ago, Portal went to the state semifinals.
    “We’ve had a pretty good run the last 15 years. We’re going to have to be a little bit patience this year,” Brannen said.
    Due to a different personnel grouping on the court this season, the Panthers will switch to a more up-tempo offense.
    Brannen said his team will try to pressure the ball and create turnovers and get out into transition.
    The Panthers will have some pretty capable guards to run the point this year. Malik Williams and Darius Huff will be asked to shoulder the load on offense from the guard standpoint.
    Williams can play point while Brannen can interchange Huff at the one or two guard.
    “We don’t have the size anymore to play in the half court offense,” Brannen said. “We’re going to have to get out in the open court and run. We ought to be better defensively than we were last year and score points off turnovers.
    “Working hard in practice and getting better is our goal right now. It’s like I told our guys the other day, it's got to be the next guy up.”

The Girls are Back
    The girls basketball team at Portal are still working on improving from last year’s mark. The Lady Panthers finished the regular season 2-23 and lost in the first round of the region playoffs.
    This season, however, the Lady Panthers have the pieces to build onto a potentially successful season.
    The Panthers have five seniors on this year’s team, all of which have been in the basketball program for four years.
    The team will also return a couple of players who were sidelined with injuries last season.
    Portal head coach Cliff Hubbard said he’s ready to get the year started.
    In the 2015-2016 season, Hubbard said he expects to play everyone in the rotation due to the up-tempo style of offense he likes to run.
    “Everyone knows they have to be ready to go at any moment. You never know when someone might not be able to show,” Hubbard said. “Someone might be on a band trip or with the chest club. They all have to be ready.”
    Hubbard said his coaching style is somewhat “aggressive” and he plans on his team exhibiting that aggression on defense.
    “I’m a defensive guy first. Play defense and defend one-on-one. Box out and rebound. Those are the key components,” Hubbard said. “If you can’t play defense you can’t play on this team for long.”
    Senior Tiffany Harlow enters her third year in the Lady Panthers’ system. Harlow should provide stability at the guard position. Sophomore Kaneisha Williams should also give the team some experience and size down low in the post.
    “She’s improved vastly on her game and worked really hard in the summer and had a pretty good fall,” Hubbard said of Williams’ improvement from her freshman year. “I also have full confidence in (Harlow) to run the show.”
    This year the goals are the same for the Panthers. They want to win region, make a statement in the region playoffs and continue to improve.

    Horace Holloman may be reached at (912) 489-9408.