MILLEN — For two fierce rivals, it was only a matter of time before a postseason matchup came to pass.
After a regular season that saw both teams clinch sub-region titles, Claxton and Portal met Saturday night in the Region 3-A boys basketball championship at Jenkins County High School, with Portal prevailing, 50-46.
“It’s been five years since we’ve been able to win the region,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “It sure feels good. This took a big effort out of everyone on the team. Claxton was a very tough opponent and it took a lot of our guys contributing to get the win.”
It was nip and tuck for most of the game, yet Portal never trailed. The Panthers jumped out to a small lead in the first half and expanded it to as large as 31-16 in the third quarter, but the Tigers never gave up. Claxton rallied hard and pulled within a point in the fourth quarter, but Portal held off the charge down the stretch.
Battling the whole way down the stretch, Claxton’s Cedric Campbell finally pulled the Tigers even at 46-46 with a floater at the 1:07 mark.
Corey Walker put the Panthers back out in front with a free throw before Treston White blocked another attempt from Campbell to set up another Walker free throw after a Claxton foul.
The Tigers rushed back down-court, but Zenas Moore put a layup attempt off the rim and Walker rebounded, was fouled, and hit another free throw.
One more Claxton miss resulted in White icing the game at the free-throw line with less than seven seconds to play.
Usually backups to starting guards Stacey Morgan and Robert Lee, Walker and White played key roles when foul trouble plagued the Panthers late.
“It took a total team effort to get this done,” Brannen said. “Near the end, I was looking at my bench and saw most of my guards sitting next to me. A lot of guys really stepped up in a big spot to help us get this one.”
Early on, things weren’t nearly so tight for Portal.
After a defensive struggle saw Portal clinging to an 8-3 edge after the first quarter, the Panthers exploded.
Akeem Oglesby hit a deep 3-pointer, Shaun Hagins scored inside and Joe Lockley hit three put-backs and a free-throw to help the Panthers take a 23-16 lead into halftime. In the third quarter, the Panthers notched the first eight points — capped off by another deep 3-pointer from Oglesby.
Labron Glover (18 points) and Zenas Moore (12) led the comeback charge for the Tigers in the second half, but could never quite match the Panthers’ intensity.
“We knew this was going to be a battle,” Brannen said. “Claxton is a very good team that played us tough the first two times. They never gave up, but thankfully, we were able to get the points late when we needed them.”
With the win, Portal clinches the No. 1 state tournament seed out of Region 3-A and will host the loser of Saturday’s Region 4-A consolation game between Central, Talbotten and Greenville in the first round of the state playoffs. As the No. 2 seed, Claxton will host the winner of that consolation matchup.
Calvary Day 56, Lady Tigers 30
After rolling through the regular season in one of the best single-season turnarounds in school history, the Claxton girls fell just short of a region title, losing to Calvary Day, 56-30, in Saturday’s championship matchup.
Undefeated — and with two wins over Claxton — in the regular season, the Lady Cavaliers (23-1) held serve in the region tournament, racking up three wins to claim the tournament title and a No. 1 seed in the state playoffs.
“It’s tough going against a team like (Calvary Day),” CHS coach Laura Aziz said. “I thought that we had a good plan, but we just couldn’t get a lot of shots to go down. We missed a lot of shots in the paint that could have kept it close.”
Calvary Day took advantage of Claxton’s offensive misfortune, rolling to a 31-17 halftime advantage.
Things only got worse for the Tigers in the second half as the Cavaliers began the third quarter with a 17-0 run that put the contest out of reach.
Leading the way for Calvary Day was Kelsey Ellis with 17 points. Alexus Parker also cracked double-digits with a 13-point scoring effort.
Polly Murray led Claxton with eight points.
With the loss, Claxton takes the No. 2 seed out of Region 3-A. The Tigers will host either Marion County or Dooly County in the first round of the Class A state tournament next week.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.