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SHS, Portal should live up to all the hype
Teams meet at Hanner Fieldhouse in super showdown
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    From 1981-1984, Statesboro basketball coach Lee Hill coached a young player named Jeff Brannen. Today — 24 years later — Brannen will attempt to beat his former mentor in a head-to-head matchup for the sixth time when his Portal Panthers face off against Hill’s Blue Devils in Georgia Southern’s Hanner Fieldhouse.
    “It’s the first time we (will play) in Hanner,” said the Portal coach, who picked up his 200th win against Wilcox County in a 2007 state playoff game. “Last year we played in Statesboro on a Saturday. They had to turn away a lot of people. They didn’t have enough seating for everybody. When we played in Portal, it was packed, too. I though it would be a good idea to play in Hanner Fieldhouse, because that way the community can come out and see the game. It will be a good experience for both teams and both communities.”
    Brannen has never beaten Hill, but as he has grown in his coaching career, the games have gotten more competitive. Brannen’s Panthers (13-1) have been on fire this year, with seniors Mario Farris and David Buchannon each averaging nearly 20 points-per-game. They are sitting atop Region 3-A after knocking off defending champion Emanuel County Institute 61-52 Saturday.
    Hill’s Devils (7-6) have suffered a lot of close losses against some tough non-region competition, but don’t let the record fool you.
    “Statesboro is Statesboro,” said Brannen. “They’ve got a good basketball team. They’ve got a lot of size. We’re going to have a lot of trouble matching up with that size. They’re still Statesboro, they’re still good and I hope it will be a competitive game. It’s a measuring stick for our program because it gives us a chance to play another good school in a big atmosphere.”
    Brannen credits Hill for being where he is right now, both in his career and as a person. The relationship between the coaches plays a part in the rivalry.
    “I probably wouldn’t be in coaching right now if it wasn’t for (Hill),” said Brannen, “and the values and the hard work that he instilled in me when I was playing for him. We still talk I’d say three or four times a week. Sometimes we talk about basketball, other times we don’t talk about basketball.
    “We’re very close, and right now, it’s hard to play (the Blue Devils). I went to Statesboro. I’m kind of torn between two schools, and I don’t think (Hill) likes playing us because of our relationship. There’s a lot of pressure on both of us.”
    Aside from the exposure the schools receive playing on a big stage like Hanner, Brannen feels that the teams will benefit on the court, not only because of the atmosphere, but also because of the level of competition the two teams offer each other.
    “I think last year, we both seemed to get better after we played,” Brannen said. “I think it’s great competition any time you get to play a bigger school in a great atmosphere.”
    Brannen doesn’t like to compare wins and losses, but with his 200th victory, he hit a career milestone. Hill has won over 600 times in his 30-plus-year career, but none of that matters when the two coaches get together to talk hoops.
    “Coach Hill’s kind of funny,” said Brannen. “He doesn’t keep up with personal stats. He’s always been a team-oriented person. We don’t talk about how many wins or losses. We’ll get together and we’ll talk about happy days when I played for him. I just wish we had more video so we could look at the games from that far back.”
    Hill is modest when discussing the matchup as well. He is just glad that the game will be played in a place to accommodate the large crowds from both communities.
    “I think it will be a big crowd,” said Hill. “We’re going out (to Hanner) where more people can see the game. I think people are excited about it, and we just hope we can give them a good game.”
    Coaching storylines aside, the game will also be a good experience for the players, who feel they will gain valuable experience come playoff time by playing on a college floor. The players have a grasp of how big the game is for their teams and for the fans.
    “I am excited about playing (in Hanner) for our fans,” said senior Mario Farris, who has electrified the Portal crowd with his exciting post play. “It’s going to be a big rivalry game, so it should be fun. The thing about Statesboro — we know everybody over there, so it should be a good game.”
    Never having beaten the Devils, Farris is confident heading into the game.
    “I know it’s going to be the year,” said the forward. “We should beat them this year.”
    Buchannon is also looking forward to the game. He knows that it will not be an easy task to knock off the Class AAAA team.
    “It’s going to be exciting,” said the senior guard. “Everybody’s going to have to step up and play hard. They’re going to have to bring their “A” game — do what they do. This is my first time playing (Statesboro since arriving at) Portal. We’re going to try and come out of (Hanner) with a victory.”
    “I feel really confident about playing Statesboro in Hanner Fieldhouse,” agreed Panther guard T.J. Busby. “I’m going to bring the “A” game and play as hard as I can.”
    The triple-header tips off at 4:15 p.m. when the JV squads face off, followed by the girls game at 6 p.m. and capped off by the boys game at 7:30. Tickets will be available at the gate for $7. They will be good for all three games.

    Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9404.