PORTAL — After surrendering a 24-2 run to finish the first half and trailing 32-16 to begin the third quarter, a lot of teams would pack it in for the night.
A lot of teams aren’t the Portal Panthers.
The Panthers (14-1, 7-1 Region 3-A) pulled off an improbable comeback Tuesday night, rallying throughout the second half to defeat Montgomery County (7-9, 5-1) by a score of 57-54 to avenge their only loss this season.
“I’ve coached for 20 years, so not much surprises me anymore,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “Tonight just goes to show that you can never give up and that you’ve got to pay for two full halves.”
In a region showdown featuring a pair of teams that are full of athletes and that like to run, Montgomery was more explosive in the early going.
After Portal outraced the Eagles’ full-court press down the court for a few easy layups in the first quarter, the Eagles laid back, but constantly trapped the Panthers. Leading 10-6 midway through the first quarter, Portal went ice cold, missing 11 straight shots from the field and constantly turning the ball over. The Panthers went 11:23 of game time without a field goal as Montgomery County looked to have a lock on the contest.
The packed gym at Portal may have been down at halftime, but there was still optimism in the Panthers’ locker room.
“I just told everybody to calm down,” Brannen said. “We just had to slow things down a little. When we started playing within ourselves, we turned things around.”
Brannen’s words worked like a charm as Portal ripped off the first 12 points of the second half — the first eight coming from Corey Reese (19 points) — to jump right back into contention. From there Stacey Morgan continued his torrid run through Region 3-A competition. Morgan was held to just six points in the first half, but notched 11 more during the comeback.
“Corey and Stacey were huge for us tonight,” Brannen said. “Even after struggling early, we just said the same thing to them. Keep playing hard, and good things will happen.”
Morgan sent the crowd into a frenzy as his layup pulled the Panthers even at 33-33 late in the third quarter.
Montgomery briefly retook a 38-33 lead on a 3 and a short jumper by Jaquan Peeples — who led all scorers with 22 points — but Portal’s momentum was too much for the Eagles to handle.
Akeem Oglesby gave Portal the lead for good in the fourth quarter with a pair of 3-pointers, then gave the Panthers some much needed insurance when he connected on all three free throws after being fouled on another 3-point attempt.
Morgan sealed the win with a steal and a layup after Oglesby’s free throws to put Portal up 57-50 with just over 20 seconds to play.
A few Montgomery shots fell in the waning seconds, but the comeback had been completed as the Panthers — along with their student section, which stormed the court in celebration — danced their way into the night with their biggest victory of the season.
Lady Eagles 35, Lady Panthers 32
After a tough start to the season, the Portal girls nearly matched their longest winning streak in four years.
The Lady Panthers started their season 0-9 before rattling off two straight wins in Region 3-A competition. Trying for a third consecutive win Tuesday night, the Panthers stayed close throughout the game, but fell just short in a 35-32 loss to Montgomery County (4-11, 4-2 Region 3-A). Trailing 15-6 at halftime, Portal clawed within four points in the third quarter.
The Lady Eagles extended their advantage to 10 points in the fourth quarter, but Portal charged back again. Mary Lane’s jumper with just under a minute to go brought the Panthers within 34-32. Portal got a final chance, down by two with just under 17 seconds to play, but Shiann Hagins — who led the Panthers with 13 points — saw her shot rattle in and out, leaving Montgomery to pull down the rebound and claim the win.
“It was a tale of two halves,” PHS coach Todd Gilchrist said. “Maybe if we had played a little better from the start, we could have gotten another win.”
Although the Panthers seem to be turning a corner as region play heats up, the goal is to become more consistent and not try to focus on just a few wins.
“The fact is that Portal hasn’t had the best tradition lately,” Gilchrist said.
“We don’t feel like that’s something we need to continue. We want to get things going in a new direction and start a new winning tradition.”
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.