PORTAL — With a loss in last week’s Region 3-A championship game, the Portal Panthers dropped from a potential top seed in the Class A state tournament all the way to the No. 6 slot.
Because of the slip, Portal figured to face a tougher first round opponent. The Panthers got exactly what they expected, running into a tough Stewart County squad, but coming away with a 64-51 victory Tuesday night.
The teams were nip-and-tuck through the first three quarters before Portal (25-4) rode a strong finishing kick to the win.
“We’ve been a fourth quarter team all year long,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “It’s all about defense. We did a good job scoring in transition late, but we got a few big stops that really got us this win.”
Stacey Morgan (13 points) put back a jumper by Trent Thomas (20 points) just before the buzzer in the third quarter to give Portal a 47-46 lead and the Panthers never trailed again.
Thomas hit a 3 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter and Marquise Wells (10 points) sank three free throws to help Portal slowly pull away.
Malik Ponder led the Knights (20-8) with 19 points, but it was the Panthers’ ability to limit him to just two points in the final quarter that paved the way to victory.
With Stewart County desperately fighting to stay alive in the final minutes, it was Thomas’ soaring block of a Ponder layup that put the Knights away for good. Seconds later, Thomas threw down a two-handed slam dunk and the home crowd was able to rest easy over the final seconds of play.
Things were much less certain for the Panthers early in the contest.
Portal led 17-11 after the first quarter, but Ponder and Tauraus Josey (12 points) combined to push the Knights in front in the second quarter.
The Panthers had to grind to keep things even and a pair of 3s by Tyler Budgett put Portal in front 29-26 at halftime.
“(Stewart County’s) zone defense gave us some issues,” Brannen said. “We really had to work all night and we finally found good shots late in the game.”
If Portal wants to continue its playoff run, it will have to pull off a win on the road.
The Panthers travel to No. 3 seed Turner County Thursday for a grudge match with plenty on the line. The pair split two meetings in the regular season, but their next meeting will decide whose season is finished and who will advance to the Final Four.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9404.