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Portal powers into semis
Panthers on brink of championship game
Portal's Robert Lee, top, starts a fast break by blocking a shot by Marion County's Lorenzo Smothers as the Panthers pull away in the final minute for a win after trailing by fifteen in the third quarter during Portal's win in the first round of the state tournament.

PORTAL - The Portal Panthers are as deep as they've ever been in the state playoffs, but they don't have any intentions of slowing down.

Wednesday night's thrilling victory over Mitchell County propelled the Panthers (21-7) into the Final Four for the second time in school history and Portal will square off against Wilcox County today at 5:30 p.m. at Fort Valley State for the right to play for a state title next week.

Portal fans were lined up outside of the gym a full two hours before the Panthers' Elite Eight tipoff and many will make the midday drive to be in attendance today. The intense support made for an electric atmosphere as the clock hit 0:00 Wednesday night, but the Panthers are trying to keep their emotions in check and focus on the new task at hand.

"Obviously, we're thrilled to be in this position," Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. "It's a big accomplishment, but it's also a challenge. You're riding so high after winning, but now we have to come right back down and get ready for another game."

With less than 48 hours separating the beginning of the Elite Eight tipoff and today's contest, trying to find information on Wilcox County (22-4) and developing a game plan has been a hectic task. Teams are used to playing many games in a short time frame - the Panthers won the Region 3-A tournament two weeks ago by winning three games in as many nights - but in those cases, upcoming opponents are usually more familiar faces.

One thing that Portal is sure of is that it must slow down the Patriots' Johnathan Howard. Wilcox's star forward is averaging over 19 points per game and, at 6-foot-6, is three inches taller than anyone on Portal's guard-heavy roster.

Corey Reese will likely take on the challenge. Reese lacks the height that many of his defensive assignments bring onto the court with them, but his strength, hustle and experience allow him to play on anyone's level.

Stacy Morgan led the way for Portal with 23 points against Mitchell County and has led the Panthers in every game where he has been at 100 percent health. But even with Reese's tough play and Morgan's game-breaking abilities, Portal will need a quality effort from everyone in uniform to keep its dream season alive.

"We know that everyone needs to be on top of their game," Brannen said. "At the same time, we don't want to get too anxious or try to do too much. There are a lot of teams at home right now that would love to trade places with us, so we're just going to try to keep doing the things that got us here in the first place."

A win today would put Portal in its first ever state championship game. In their previous Final Four appearance in 2008, the Panthers went into overtime before falling to Hancock Central.

The winner of today's game will face either Jenkins County or Wilcox County to determine a state champion Thursday in Macon.

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