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Portal faces grudge match at Turner
Portal's Marquis Wells, right, celebrates as teammate Trent Thomas dunks over Stewart County's Corderro Ponder in the final seconds of Tuesday's win in the first round of the Class A Public State playoffs. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

 (6) Portal at (3) Turner County
7:30 p.m.

GHSA Class A Public State Playoffs

    PORTAL — The state playoffs usually find powerful teams running into each other for the first time.
    In tonight’s quarterfinal showdown between Portal and Turner County, it’s a grudge match.
    The Panthers (25-4) make the long trek to Ashburn tonight to face the Rebels (24-4) after the teams split a pair of regular season matchups. This time around, the stakes are much higher as the winner will advance to the Final Four Saturday in Savannah.
    “We’re definitely familiar with each other,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “It’s a little easier knowing your opponent and knowing what to expect. The main thing is that you’ve got two good teams trying to win a big game.”
    Portal was rudely introduced to Turner County on Dec. 20 as the Rebels claimed a 75-54 win. The Panthers’ pride may have been bruised, but it lit a fire as they won 19 of their next 21 games.
    The Panthers took down plenty of good teams in that span, with a last-second home victory over the Rebels on Jan. 18 serving as an exclamation point.
    Portal will have to get the job done on the road this time.
    The Panthers will have to contend with a 150-mile road trip, a hostile crowd, and a Rebel squad that likes to throw all of its players at opponents.
    Turner County utilizes anywhere from 12-15 players in its games. Because of the steady stream of fresh legs, the Rebels play extremely physical, aren’t afraid to foul, and play the game with their foot firmly pressed on the gas pedal.
    Portal isn’t lacking for options on its own bench, but is focused on sticking to its style of play.
    “Our main focus is to control the tempo,” Brannen said. “Turnovers hurt us when we lost (to Turner County). We need to get extra possessions and cut down on the turnovers when we’re battling their pressure.”
    Brannen added that maturity and experience could be a determining factor in the game.
    The Panthers start five upperclassmen and all but two of their regulars —transfers Trent Thomas and Harrison Sherrod — saw action in last year’s run to the semifinals.
    “Our guys don’t get rattled,” Brannen said. “We’ve been in some tough spots, but they know how to battle.”
    Thomas combines with Stacey Morgan to form a deadly 1-2 punch for the Panthers. Both are averaging just over 17 points per game while Thomas is just shy of averaging a double-double for the season.
    Antonio Graddic and Tamarrion Terry are the only Rebels who average more than eight points per game, but Turner’s depth spreads out great offensive output as the team averages 70.6 points per game.
    The winner of tonight’s contest will advance to the Final Four Saturday in Savannah where either Hawkinsville or Randolph-Clay will be waiting.

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