PORTAL — What was supposed to be the first step in a long climb turned into a season-ending pitfall for Portal High School's boys basketball team Saturday.
Entering the Class A state playoffs with a No. 1 seed and home-court advantage, the Panthers led early, but couldn’t hold off No. 4 seed Central of Talbotton and lost, 56-46.
Tied at 43 with 5:29 to play, the score stayed tied until Zaidion Searcy knocked down a 3-pointer from the left corner with 1:51 to go. Another basket off a missed Portal shot stretched the lead, and the Panthers couldn’t find the offense to claw back as the Hawks sank their free throws down the stretch to keep Portal at bay and advance to the second round of the state playoffs.
“We had a great year,” Portal coach Jeff Brannen said. “Things just didn’t go our way tonight. Losing is always disappointing, but getting 25 wins in a year is something to be proud of.”
For the Panthers, the loss marks the second consecutive year that they have exited the GHSA playoffs in the first round.
After losing twice in their region tournament to drop to a No. 4 seed, the Hawks entered state play with a vengeance. Four Talbotton players notched 10 points or more, with Kobias Trice’s 14 leading the way.
A finger roll by Anton Turner (11 points) with 38 seconds to play in the third quarter erased the final lead that Portal held on the night and the Hawks outscored the Panthers 17-8 over the final eight minutes to move on.
“Both teams played hard all night,” Brannen said. “In the end, it seemed like a lot of loose balls just bounced (Talbotton’s) way. They were able to get some easy looks and made them all, and they made us work hard for everything.”
Things didn’t look so gloomy for Portal early on.
In the first quarter, each team spent its first few possessions feeling out its opponent. Searcy (11 points) and Akeem Oglesby (9) traded 3-pointers in the opening minutes. Another Oglesby 3-pointer and a pair of free throws from both Shaun Hagins and Robert Lee helped the Panthers build a 13-8 edge after the first quarter.
The close play continued, but Portal kept its slight edge in the second quarter.
Trice got things started for Talbotton, draining a short jumper and a put-back in the opening minute of the period. Tevin Davis chipped in for the Hawks with a 3-pointer and a driving layup, but a pair of jumpers by Treston White allowed Portal to keep pace.
Stacey Morgan, who led the Panthers with 17 points, continued to keep the Panthers ahead, sinking a pair of 3-pointers, a free throw and a tough layup before a floater at the one-second mark put the Panthers up, 30-26, at halftime.
Despite Portal’s advantage on the scoreboard, it was clear that Talbotton wasn’t going away.
“They are a four-seed, but records don’t matter in the state playoffs,” Brannen said. “Talbotton was a team that won their sub-region and had a top seed in their region tournament just like we did. They definitely played like that kind of team tonight.”
All of that talent and tenacity started to pay off in the second half.
Trice began the half with a midrange jumper before Davis added another jumper and a free throw. Trice connected along the baseline at the 2:56 mark of the third quarter to put the Hawks up 33-32, their first lead since the opening minute of the game.
Two buckets in the final minute of the quarter extended the lead, but Hagins connected on a 3-pointer as time expired to cut the Talbotton lead to 39-38 after three quarters.
After another quick score by the Hawks — Talbotton scored the first points in all four quarters — Corey Walker answered for Portal with an 18-footer.
The Panthers remained close, but another Oglesby 3-pointer was the last bucket Portal made before the Hawks’ decisive run in the waning minutes.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.