Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
The way South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy put it, he and his staff have fulfilled their obligation after guiding the Panthers through their 24 regulation season contests.
If the seventh-ranked Panthers want to play more, well, that's entirely up to them during the Class 6A boys basketball state playoffs.
If Tuesday's performance is any indication, the local boys are more than interested in keeping their season going as long as possible.
Using solid team defense and a willingness to share the ball, South Medford was able to open a sizeable lead over North Salem and then stave off any late upset hopes by the Vikings for a 78-60 first-round victory at South Medford High.
"We took a first step tonight, which is good," said Murphy, "and hopefully we'll take another one on Friday night."
The Southern Oregon Hybrid champion Panthers (20-5) will play host to Lincoln, a 60-50 winner over Clackamas, in Friday's second round. The winner of that game advances to the eight-team 6A state tournament at the Rose Garden in Portland.
"I only have one more home game left at this school now and I just want to go out and play as hard as I can and cherish the games I have left," said South Medford senior Jesse Mondry, who had 21 points and four rebounds Tuesday. "I just wanted to try to involve my teammates and get all of us energetic tonight, and I thought our starters played really good. We were meshing tonight and playing great defense and I think that was the difference."
"Now it's one more step to the Rose Garden," added the 6-foot-5 post. "If we make it there it's a worthwhile experience, it's just incredible."
The Panthers have advanced to the final tournament site in 10 of the last 11 seasons, winning a state title in 2007 and finishing second in 2006.
South Medford built a 31-17 lead by halftime but a barrage of 3-pointers by junior Malik Leaks and some empty trips by the Panthers allowed North Salem to pull within seven points with 5:45 to play.
Undaunted, the Panthers immediately answered with a 6-0 run that ballooned to 15-2 before it was over and eliminated any hopes of an upset by the Vikings (8-19). Mondry scored nine points during that stretch, including a pair of driving baskets to start the surge.
"Our kids all year have kept battling," said Murphy, in his 25th year as the Panthers head coach. "They don't get down on themselves or get down on each other and we find a way to win."
Senior Matt Toreson (16 points, four steals, three rebounds, two assists), junior CJ Keepes (13 points, eight rebounds) and junior Mark Winans (12 points, four rebounds, four assists) also reached double figures for the Panthers.
Senior Adrian Garcia had nine assists, six points, two steals and two rebounds, with nine different South players scoring overall and seven gaining assists in the balanced attack.
"That's who we are," added Murphy. "You surely have to guard all of us, and guys get the basketball in spots where they feel comfortable and are capable of shooting it and making it. It was another good team effort for us. It's good to get the bitter taste out of our mouth from our last defeat against Grants Pass (which snapped a 12-game winning streak)."
South Medford, which also forced 20 turnovers, secured the win by going 14-for-18 from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
"I was just glad we had heart enough to come back," said North Salem head coach Jack Martino. "This is a dang good (South Medford) team and we play in a league where we don't see defense like this. We got a little culture shock to start the game and were back on our heels a little bit, but our guys didn't quit and we were happy with that."
Leaks finished with 21 points and four rebounds and senior Santano Sauseda added 10 points for the Vikings, who trailed 14-4 to open the game. All but two of Leaks' points came in the second half, where he connected on three straight 3-pointers during one stretch and made four beyond the arc overall.
It was Leaks' fourth 3-pointer and an ensuing steal by Justin Lowe and layin by Leaks that cut North Salem's deficit to 56-49 with 5:45 to play. Mondry answered right away with a pair of baskets and then the Panthers began their parade to the foul line, getting six attempts at one point after Lowe was assessed a technical foul after being called for a foul and then Adrian Cuanas was called for a foul on the restart.
"Surely they got it closer than what we wanted and you knew they weren't going to keep making all of those (3-pointers)," said Murphy. "We just talked about it and said they threw a couple punches at you and we took it on the chin and we kept punching back and then we built the thing back up to where it should have been."
North Salem also got eight points and four rebounds from senior Nick Taussig, six points from senior Tyler Jones and five points and five rebounds from Lowe.
The Vikings managed to shoot only 7-for-20 in the first half but finished 21-for-47 overall (45 percent). South Medford finished 27-for-55 (49 percent) from the field and managed to avoid many scoring lulls.
"We had to get some stops somehow and they just run their stuff too well for us to defend," said Martino. "We're just not used to guarding talent like this on a consistent basis. We get it sometimes in our league but not to the point that coach Murphy runs it. They run their stuff beautifully and we're just not in that level defensively yet to stay in that game."
NORTH SALEM (60) — Leaks 21, Sauseda 10, Taussig 8, Jones 6, Lowe 5, Feskens 3, Quevedo 2, Williams 2, Bobbitt 2, Roberts 1, Cuanas 0, Green 0. Totals: 21-47 11-15 60.
SOUTH MEDFORD (78) — Mondry 21, Toreson 16, Keepes 13, Winans 12, Garcia 6, Monical 4, Robertson 3, Carpenter 2, Orndoff 1, Lallo 0, Massey 0. Totals: 27-55 21-28 78.
North Salem 10 7 25 18 — 60
South Medford 14 17 20 27 — 78
3-point goals — North Salem 7-16 (Leaks 4, Sauseda 2, Jones 1), South Medford 3-8 (Toreson 2, Keepes 1). Technical fouls — Lowe.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry