PORTAL — After a dominant regular season run and a Region 3-A tournament title, the Portal boys are now setting their sights on a bigger prize.
Tonight, the Panthers (25-3) host Central of Talbotton at 5 p.m. in the first round of the Class-A state playoffs. Portal has lit up the ‘W’ column all season, but now it’s do-or-die for a team that has met every challenge thus far.
At the beginning of the season, things didn’t look so sunny for the Panthers.
Starting forward Isiah Rich was lost for more than two months with a broken foot while fellow forward Jordan Cowart also was forced out of action.
Midway through the season, star sophomore guard Stacey Morgan went down with ankle injuries and also missed significant time.
Undaunted, Portal soldiered on. Last week, the Panthers rolled into the region tournament with a full, healthy squad for the first time all season. With all options available, Portal lived up to its potential, sweeping three games to win the region crown and a No. 1 seed in the state tournament.
“We really played well last week,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “(The early injuries) helped us in a couple of ways. First, it put some of our healthy guys in positions where they had to improve and help us win games. Once we got some guys back, it also allowed us to give everyone plenty of rest and keep everyone fresh.”
The end result is a team that has been strengthened — not weakened — by what it has had to endure.
“The great thing about this year’s team is our depth,” Brannen said. “We’ve got three or four guys that can score in double-digits every night. There isn’t that one guy that we have to lean on. Everyone is playing together to get us wins.”
That sort of team play will be crucial in the playoffs. Central of Talbotton (11-13) comes in as the No. 4 seed out of Region 4-A, but still commands respect. The Hawks won their sub-region before slipping up in their region tournament and dropping in the seeding process.
Armed with a healthy lineup, Brannen knows that he will need all hands on deck to advance.
“(Talbotton) is a little bigger than us,” Brannen said. “They also look like they like to run. We’re OK with that since that plays into our game. The key is for our defense to stay strong. That’s what we’ve fed off of for the last five or six games.”
The winner of tonight’s game will advance to play either Calhoun County or Turner County in the second round Wednesday.
Claxton right at home in playoffs
The Claxton boys fell just short of claiming their second Region 3-A title in three years last week, but all of the records reset tonight as the Tigers host Greenville in the first round of the Class-A playoffs.
After rolling to their third straight sub-region title, the Tigers (18-7) will try to keep the good times going. Two seasons ago, Claxton won its region and took a No. 1 seed, only to be upset in the first round of the state tournament.
Standing in the way are the Patriots of Greenville, who won the Region 4-A consolation game to get a No. 3 seed, but are barely over .500 at 15-14 on the season.
This season marks the final chance for accomplished Claxton senior Labron Glover to get a win in state playoff competition.
Short on size, but long on depth, the Tigers will likely stick to their run-and-gun style and try to overwhelm the Patriots with their ability to press, defend and breakout in transition.
Along with Glover, Trey Hines, Zenas Moore and Cornelius Campbell are Tigers that could make a huge splash on the big stage of the state tournament.
Tip off for tonight’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m. with the winner playing either Mitchell County or Atkinson County in the second round.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.