North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
There really was no sugar-coating it when South Medford boys basketball coach Dennis Murphy offered his thoughts on Tuesday night's Southwest Conference opener against visiting South Eugene.
Murphy had just watched his No. 3-ranked Panthers fall prey to a very focused and determined effort by the Axemen in a 67-52 loss, and his exasperation told the entire story.
"They outhustled us, they outplayed us, they outshot us, they outcoached us," the coach said in praise of South Eugene. "The game was more important to them than it was to us."
Using a packed-in 2-3 defensive zone focused on double- and triple-teaming Panther standout E.J. Singler, the Axemen were able to keep South Medford in check and then executed their offense with precision to earn a much-deserved road victory.
E.J. Singler was limited to 13 points — seven coming in the fourth quarter — and the Panthers could only muster 10 points from Josh Havird and nine apiece from Mitch Singler and Mike Brassel in an offensive attack that had little flow and too many turnovers.
"Tonight I think our game plan was pretty solid," said South Eugene coach Dave Hancock. "We have great respect for E.J. and Mitch and the whole program, but we also felt we had to make some of the other kids step up and try to beat us. This is the first time all year that we've actually stayed with a game plan and didn't panic."
The zone was nothing new to the Panthers, having seen such schemes throughout the preseason, but South Medford (7-3, 0-1 SWC) couldn't find an answer this time around.
"It was the one thing that at least partially nullified E.J. and made the other guys hit shots against us," added Hancock. "They couldn't get stuff off their offense really on backcuts or things like that. It's something, at least this time against this team, that was very effective."
On the flip side, after a slow start, South Eugene finished a crisp 22-for-41 from the field and drained 21 of 24 foul shots to fend off the Panthers. The Axemen (5-5, 1-0) scored on 12 of their 16 fourth-quarter possessions and never trailed after Hayden Rooke-Ley hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give his team a 20-18 advantage with four minutes to go in the second quarter.
"We haven't shown patience like that all year," said Hancock. "We slowed the game down to a pace that we could play at, and I thought that was a huge key."
Spencer Coleman scored 22 points and added six rebounds and four blocks to pace the Axemen, while fellow junior Rooke-Ley poured in 12 of his 19 points in a key second-quarter surge that allowed South Eugene to take control.
It didn't help that seven of South Medford's 14 turnovers came in the second quarter, leaving the Panthers to post only a pair of free throws by E.J. Singler over the final five minutes of the frame as the Axemen took a 26-20 lead into halftime.
"I think we were just soft with the ball," said E.J. Singler, who also finished with nine rebounds. "We didn't penetrate their zone and didn't move the ball. We just weren't tough tonight."
Brassel's three 3-pointers off the bench and a determined eight points, four rebounds and two steals from Miles Petersen provided the only real highlights on the night for the listless Panthers.
"Playing hard is something everybody has the ability to do," said Murphy. "You either choose to do it or you choose not to do it, and for some reason we just don't play very hard."
SOUTH EUGENE (67) — Coleman 22, Rooke-Ley 19, Burgdorfer 12, Jacobs 8, Lindsey 2, Craig 2, McNulty 2, Vanderkley 0. Totals: 22-41 21-24 67.
SOUTH MEDFORD (52) — E.J. Singler 13, Havird 10, M. Singler 9, Brassel 9, Petersen 8, McLaughlin 3, Kynard 0, Mercer 0. Totals: 19-53 8-10 52.
South Eugene 8 18 17 24 — 67
South Medford 8 12 13 19 — 52
3-point goals — South Eugene 2-8 (Rooke-Ley 2), South Medford 6-19 (Brassel 3, Havird 2, McLaughlin 1). Fouled out — Brassel.
JV score — South Eugene 61, South Medford 53.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org