A tale of two teams: Portal Panthers basketball edition.
It’d be a catchy title for a book about the hoops season for the northern-most high school here in Bulloch County. The boys and girls basketball seasons veered in totally opposite directions from the beginning of the season and never intertwined again.
Starting with the ladies, their season was an unpleasant chore from start to finish. Of the 25 games they played in, 11 resulted in losses of 30 or more points with another four resulting in losses of 40 points or more. A lack of offensive continuity, turnovers and general inexperience plagued the Lady Panthers all season.
“We lost five seniors who did everything last year,” said assistant coach Cliff Hubbard. “These other girls had played minutes, but they were never asked to lead before It made a big difference.”
The Lady Panthers only had three seniors this year while bringing up the rear with a lot of underclassman. Freshmen Kolbie Motes, Keely Thomas and sophomore Shannon McDaneils had to play a bevy of key minutes to match whatever the upperclassmen were contributing.
Because of this it took ten games before Portal finally managed to win a game this season. At 0-9 Portal beat Screven County 42-11, then reeled off what had to be their highlight of the season by beating Montgomery County then ECI on a buzzer-beating layup by Motes. Three games in a row seemed impossible at 0-9, yet somehow Portal managed to do it.
“Our defense really started to show up during that stretch,” Hubbard said. “That was the point where I could definitively say we were getting better.”
However from that point on Portal would only manage to beat Screven and ECI on the second leg of their respective home-and-homes going 2-11 in their last 13 games. Beating ECI in the final game of the season was a nice band-aid on a tough regular season, but it wasn’t enough to take away the sting of how their region play-in game went.
On Monday Portal was matched up against nearby rival Claxton, a team they’d lost two twice already but by only a combined margin of ten points. The first was a six point loss, then the second time around was four — but the third time around Portal would only shrink the deficit by three.
Claxton would beat Portal by a 36-35 score, ending their season with a 5-21 record and a 3-14 mark in region play. With nine of their 12 players back next season, Hubbard hopes from greener pastures next season.
“We’re going to start working to get better next season,” Hubbard said. “I’m looking forward to see what kind of improvements our underclassmen can make from this year to next year.”
On the other hand, the Portal boys took a much different path to their spot in the region tournament. For the first 16 games of the season, Portal was 9-7 and looked to be a fringe playoff team at best while dropping games to sub-.500 teams like MCA, Jenkins County and Claxton.
However the last time Portal lost a game was Jan. 14, and has since reeled off nine straight en route to being the No. 2 seed in their subregion. Now ranked No. 15 in the class A power ratings with a record of 18-7, a strong run in the tournament could boost the Panthers into a much better seed come state playoff time.
“They’re improving with every game and their confidence is growing,” said head coach Jeff BRannen. “Our chemistry is growing.”
Senior guard Timmy Williams has been the firestarter during the nine game winning streak, averaging 17.8 points per game during the run and being the key playmaker in close games. Five of those games have been decided by five points or less, so Williams’ ability to hit free throws down the stretch has been key for Portal's success.
Ronald Williams had followed behind as a double-double machine and a defensive force on the glass. He’s averaged 13.3 points per game and 10.1 rebounds per game — including 5.2 offensive boards to go along with 2.4 blocks per game and 2.5 steals. The Williams’ pair give Portal two dominant force in the backcourt and the front court.
“Timmy’s development into a crunchtime player has been very important for us,” Brannen said. “Ronald’s offense has come along much more this year, so those are two guys we feel comfortable going to late in games.”
Portal’s semi-final matchup is one that’s given them some trouble this season: nearby rival Jenkins County. The Eagles split their season series with Portal, beating the Panthers on the road 60-58 then falling at home 74-66. The point differential favors Portal by six, but it’ll nevertheless be a tougher matchup for the Panthers because of two players.
Desmion Robbins and Andrew Ellis combine for 26.0 points per game, with Ellis being the more dangerous three-point shooter (38 percent from three). Ellis made three triples in the Eagles win over Portal, and the rivalry only makes things more intense.
“It’s a rivalry, being our communities are so close together,” Brannen said. “You can throw the records out the window. They’ll be gunning for us for sure.”
Portal’s tournament run starts tonight at 8:30 at McIntosh County Academy. If they win, they’ll face No. 1 seed Treutlen tomorrow at 4:00 p.m.