In a game of inches, Mercedes Russell's sturdy 6-foot-5 frame proved the difference.
Springfield's Tennessee-bound senior erupted for 37 points, 18 rebounds and six assists as the Class 5A Millers defeated top-ranked South Medford 71-63 on Friday, ending the Panthers' 34-game winning streak that began last year.
Russell had her way with South in front of a packed house at South Medford High, gobbling up rebounds and scoring on putbacks and short shots over the outstretched arms of shorter Panthers (4-1). Russell, who is regarded as the top player of her class, owned at least a four-inch advantage over South throughout the night. Junior Ashley Bolston (6-1), Andee Ritter (6-0) and Jasmine Falls (5-11) jostled for position, but gaining it was a task that proved too tall.
Despite the enormous obstacle, the Panthers had their chances to win. South, which led 28-27 at halftime, benefitted from guard Julissa Tago's 20-point performance. The freshman showed few nerves in her first home varsity game, scoring 10 of her squad's first 14 points and chipping in eight points in the final quarter.
"I was just really excited to come out and play my hardest and play for my team and I knew if we played as a team maybe we'd get it done," Tago said. "But it's a loss, but we'll come back from it."
As Tago and senior Kylie Towry (18 points) shined, many of her teammates contended with uncharacteristic struggles from the floor. Ritter was just 1-for-8, guard Yaremi Mejia 2-for-10 and Bolston 1-for-4.
"We were just off," Bolston said.
The Panthers were ice-cold for the first half of the third quarter, unable to score until the 3:52 mark as the Millers (4-0) — who are ranked 18th nationally by USA Today — went on a key 9-0 run. The full-court trap that worked so well against Springfield in the first half, when the Millers committed eight of their 11 turnovers, wasn't as effective in the second.
"We worked on their press a lot in practice," Russell said. "We were ready for it. It just kind of threw us off guard at first, we just had to get used to it. In the second half we were better at it."
Back-to-back layups by Towry and a sideline drive by Tago drew South within four points, down 38-34 with 3:19 to go in the third.
South, trailing 50-41 entering the fourth, cut its deficit to three with four free-throw makes by Towry and a jumper by Tago with 7:03 remaining. While struggling to keep the Millers off the free-throw line (they made 10 of their 19 attempts in the final eight minutes), the Panthers again pulled within three on Ritter's only bucket of the night with 4:35 to go.
On the ensuing possession, Ritter fouled out after stepping in front of Russell as Russell barrelled down the court.
"I felt like we were really never able to recover from that swing in momentum," South Medford head coach Tom Cole said. "That would have been Mercedes' fourth, but instead it was Andee's fifth."
Russell, who converted 13 of her 21 field-goal tries and 11 of her 15 free-throw attempts, scored 12 fourth-quarter points and Ashley Richey knocked down a back-breaking 3 with 3:02 left to seal the victory.
Bolston finished with five points and four rebounds, Tago four rebounds, Ritter five assists and two blocks and Towry three steals for the Panthers, who made 20 of their 25 free-throw attempts. Freshman Jasmine Falls recorded four points and five rebounds, helping spark an otherwise tentative South squad in the first period.
Danea Swartout had seven points and 14 rebounds for Springfield.
"This is a great test for our team to come on the road and play a talented team in South Medford and to come here and get a win in a great environment, great atmosphere," Springfield head coach Bill Wagner said. "It says a lot about our team."
The Panthers went 30-0 last year, including a 50-46 win over Springfield, and won the 6A state title.
"A loss can mean a lot of different things," Cole said. "I think we've been fortunate enough to be in a position where we can recognize a loss to mean something different than maybe a lot of teams. None of us wished that outcome but we feel like we have two choices right now. One is really not an option. The only option we really have is to use this loss as a motivation to get better."
SPRINGFIELD (71) — Richey 8, Petewon 0, Lange 3, Russell 37, Duncan 7, Cummins 9, Swartout 7. Totals: 24 19-36 71.
SOUTH MEDFORD (63) — Towry 18, Ritter 3, Bolston 5, Tago 20, Sleezer 2, Falls 4, Mejia 8, Cox 3. Totals: 18 20-25 63.
Springfield 12 15 23 21 — 71
South Medford 7 21 13 22 — 63
3-point goals — Springfield 3 (Lange 1, Duncan 1, Richey 1), South Medford 5 (Towry 2, Bolston 1, Ritter 1, Tago 1). Fouled out — Ritter.
JV result — South Medford won.
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com