WASHINGTON, D.C. — There were plenty of forces working against the South Medford girls basketball team when it took the floor against one of the country's top teams Thursday in the first round of the National Title IX Holiday Invitational Classic.
The Panthers nevertheless rose to the challenge and posted the highest-profile win in school history when they defeated Riverdale Baptist of Upper Marlboro, Md., 74-65.
Junior forward Ashley Bolston had 23 points, 14 rebounds and two blocks, and freshman guard Julissa Tago contributed 15 points, seven rebounds and four steals to lead the upset.
Riverdale Baptist (11-2) is ranked No. 5 in the country by MaxPreps and No. 8 by USA Today.
South Medford, which is 5-1 and had its 34-game winning streak snapped in its previous outing, is No. 1 among Oregon Class 6A teams but unranked nationally.
"I don't think there was anybody in that gym who thought we were going to win, except for us," said Panthers coach Tom Cole, whose team rallied from an eight-point first-quarter deficit. "We went in thinking we were the underdog. We had nothing to lose so just go out and be ourselves. It's not the first time we've played a nationally-ranked caliber team and players. We've seen a lot of this the last couple years."
South Medford left home on Christmas and traveled farther than any of the other 15 teams in the field. The emotional setback of having its win streak snapped a week earlier by Springfield (No. 17 USA Today), the holiday travel over three time zones and tournament obligations once it arrived all served to sap energy from the Panther players, said Cole.
Then there was the stage on which they'd face a formidable foe.
"They showed a lot of character tonight not to succumb to the national stature of this team," said Cole, "and just go out and play basketball and do what I, as their coach, know what they're capable of. That was what made this win special."
South Medford was invited to the tournament — there are two eight-team brackets — last spring. Teams were sought for their basketball ability and their academic success, and part of the tournament experience is attending workshops and touring historic venues. The Panthers were to tour the White House today.
The tournament is at the Trinity Center for Women and Girls in Sports and comes on the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX.
"It's a privilege for us to be out here," said Cole. "We're glad to be a part of it."
Riverdale Baptist has a history of success. It captured the ESPNHS National Invitational title last year and went 37-2, ending the season ranked No. 3 by USA Today and No. 5 by ESPN. It graduated seven seniors, all of whom received athletic scholarships to Division I colleges.
This year, said Cole, the private school with a number of states represented on its roster, reloaded with a like number of potential college players. Last week, they defeated Bishop O'Dowd, ranked No. 1 by MaxPreps.
Riverdale Bishop's ability was on display at the outset against South Medford, particularly the Crusaders' guard play. The quick and athletic backcourt helped build a 21-13 lead after the first quarter.
"We've played some really good teams in the last couple years," said Cole, "but their guards were at an elite level. They created all kinds of problems."
In the second quarter, the Panthers got into the flow of their game and rallied. Bolston and Yaremi Mejia, neither of whom scored in the first quarter, had eight and seven points, respectively, in the second.
South Medford pulled even at halftime, 37-37, and its own swarming, pressing defense got in the act in the third, forcing Riverdale Baptist into turnovers and building a 14-point edge. It then held on the down the stretch.
Kylie Towry kept the Panthers afloat in the first quarter and finished with 14 points and four assists. Mejia had 13 points and four assists.
South Medford takes on Hoover, Ala., in the semifinals of the Platinum Bracket tonight at 5:45 PST.
SOUTH MEDFORD (74) — Towry 14, Ritter 5, Bolston 23, J. Tago 15, Sleezer 0, Falls 4, Mejia 13, Cox 0. Totals: 27 16-26 74.
RIVERSIDE BAPTIST (65) — Ray 14, Gilmore 13, Britt 0, Mickle 4, Jackson 21, Singleton 13, Wright 0, Scott 0, Freeland 0. Totals: 26 11-13 65.
South Medford 13 24 19 18 — 74
Riverside Baptist 21 16 12 16 — 65
3-point goals — South Medford 4 (Towry 2, J. Tago 1, Mejia 1), Riverside Baptist 2 (Ray 2).