PORTLAND — It took one look up at the scoreboard with almost 3 1/2; minutes gone in Friday's state tournament clash between heavyweights South Medford and Central Catholic for the Panthers to have that one defining moment.
Top-ranked South Medford found itself down 14-2 to No. 2 Central Catholic in what seemed like a bad dream, only it wasn't.
"We looked up at the scoreboard and it kinda just hit us, like, 'What are we doing?'" said South Medford junior Kylie Towry. "Then we just came out together and fought hard to get back because we knew we did not want to lose."
It all began on the defensive end, trickled over to the offense and, a few scoring spurts later, South Medford found itself firmly in control and en route to a 62-45 victory in the semifinals of the Class 6A girls basketball state tournament.
The Panthers (29-0) advanced to tonight's 6:30 championship final at the Rose Garden and will face sixth-ranked Westview (20-7), which beat West Linn 63-48 in the other semifinal.
"I'm very satisfied with what we've done and so happy that words cannot even explain this feeling that I have right now," South Medford junior Yaremi Mejia said of her team advancing to its first state tournament championship final. "It's a good feeling, a great feeling."
South Medford trimmed its deficit to 17-13 by the end of the first quarter, went on a 15-0 run in the second quarter to take a 29-26 halftime lead and then built a reasonably comfortable margin early in the third quarter on the Rams (25-2).
"It didn't start out pretty but, golly man, these kids are warriors," said South Medford head coach Tom Cole. "I'm so proud of them tonight. To come back from being down in that pit early and then to rise to the challenge like that was amazing. The thing for us that's so special is that it came from everybody."
Mejia went 12-for-13 from the free-throw line to score 15 points and added five steals and three assists, while Towry had 11 points and freshman Andee Ritter came off the bench to post 13 points, nine rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes.
Sophomore Ashley Bolston had eight points, six rebounds, four assists and three steals, Stanford-bound senior Tess Picknell contributed 13 rebounds, three blocks and six points and junior Luisa Tago added nine points and six rebounds also for the Panthers.
"Everybody stepped up tonight," added Cole. "It was just an amazing effort where they all had to really have a gut-check early and remember we're here for a reason and it isn't to show this. To their credit, they just responded."
South Medford's balance was exactly the cure to overcome a Rams team that featured a pair of top national recruits for the Class of 2013 in juniors Jordan Reynolds and Kailee Johnson. With Bolston and Ritter shadowing the dynamic 5-10 point guard, Reynolds managed 13 points on 5-for-16 shooting — four of those shots coming in the final 90 seconds from well beyond the arc.
"Andee and Ashley were phenomenal on Jordan Reynolds tonight," said Cole. "If we can keep a kid who's a potential All-American down to 13 points, it says a lot about the kind of defense those kids played on her. They were incredible."
Picknell drew the lion's share of assignments on the 6-3 Johnson, who was 3-for-18 from the field for 14 points to go with 15 rebounds, three blocks and seven turnovers.
Johnson took an inadvertent elbow from Bolston midway through the third quarter that bloodied her lip and knocked a pair of teeth loose but was able to return to the court two minutes later. A 3-pointer by Towry followed Johnson's exit to put South up 42-32 but Amantha Hood scored on the interior to answer for the Rams in the only scoring during her absence.
Central Catholic was able to trim its deficit to 46-42 midway through the fourth quarter, but Ritter answered with a clutch 3-pointer, Picknell blocked a Johnson shot and Towry calmly knocked down a pair of free throws to push the lead back up to nine points.
"It was tough out there," said Ritter, who was named South's player of the game by tournament officials. "We couldn't let off because even with that lead we knew they could come back so we had to keep going and we pulled it off."
It was that kind of night for the Panthers, who put together several scoring spurts to keep the Rams at bay. South scored the final nine points to close out the game.
"They played awesome, they did what we didn't," said Reynolds. "They made shots, they transitioned, they played defense and we fell off and they got the win. They played hard and they wanted it more."
In many ways, Reynolds said the early outburst by her team almost was a detriment in how the Rams reacted to being in such a groove.
"Once we got our run, we got a little bit too comfortable," she said. "Everyone was just in their own thing and we weren't getting back on defense and weren't transitioning and shots weren't falling, so it was all good on their part."
Central Catholic head coach Sandy Dickerson also noted how the Panthers ability to spread the floor and get contributions from each player was a key and especially proved pivotal in the six- and seven-point scoring spurts South kept going on.
In the thick of most of those spurts were Ritter and Tago, especially. Ritter backed up a Towry 3-pointer with an NBA-range trey of her own in the second quarter to put South up 28-24, while Tago had the game-tying basket the preceded Towry's shot and also scored the first five points out of the locker room for her squad.
"Luisa Tago was amazing tonight," said Cole. "She was not fazed and just did all the dirty work she's been doing all year that doesn't get a lot of credit or attention. Her big buckets changing the momentum swing was incredible. And Andee, she just pulled up and it was ice. I'm extremely proud of her."
But amidst all that pride came a word of caution from Cole.
"We're not celebrating tonight," noted the coach, "the real task is tomorrow."
CENTRAL CATHOLIC (45) — Johnson 3-18 7-8 14, Reynolds 5-16 1-2 13, Hood 5-8 0-4 10, Kotzian-Upshaw 2-8 0-0 6, Newman 1-6 0-0 2, Torres 0-0 0-0 0, Cichoke 0-1 0-0 0, Turner 0-0 0-0 0, Abraham 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 16-57 8-14 45.
SOUTH MEDFORD (62) — Mejia 1-9 12-13 15, Ritter 3-7 5-6 13, Towry 3-8 2-2 11, Tago 4-9 0-1 9, Bolston 1-8 6-8 8, Picknell 3-7 0-5 6, Morris 0-2 0-0 0. Totals: 15-50 25-35 62.
Central Catholic 17 9 11 8 — 45
South Medford 13 16 15 18 — 62
3-point goals — Central Catholic 5-16 (Kotzian-Upshaw 2-4, Reynolds 2-6, Johnson 1-3, Cichoke 0-1, Newman 0-1, Hood 0-1), South Medford 7-20 (Towry 3-8, Ritter 2-3, Tago 1-3, Mejia 1-3, Bolston 0-3). Rebounds — Central Catholic 37 (Johnson 15), South Medford 44 (Picknell 13). Assists — Central Catholic 10 (Reynolds 3, Johnson 3), South Medford 10 (Bolston 4). Total fouls — Central Catholic 23, South Medford 14.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry