Winning the Southern Cascade League title seemed like a pretty bold goal this spring considering the recent history of the Cascade Christian...
Time seemed to freeze as Joci Ellis' game-winning 3-point attempt exited her hands and glided through the heavy gymnasium air.
If the ball goes in, the North Medford girls basketball team's night of troubles is forgiven, forgotten and replaced with the memory of one incredible shot.
If it doesn't, everything ends.
Few shots fell — and few things went right — in fifth-seeded South Eugene's ugly 29-27 win over the fourth-seeded Black Tornado in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs on Wednesday at North Medford High. Neither team struck gold offensively, but it was the Axemen's 2-3 zone that made the biggest impact. The defense kept the ball mostly out of the hands of McKensey Peters, North's standout senior post, and forced the Black Tornado (14-9) into 11-of-38 shooting and 19 turnovers.
South Eugene (14-11) will play top-seeded Clackamas in the second round on Saturday.
"We never felt like we got in a rhythm," North head coach Tim Karrick said. "Offensively or defensively."
Despite that, North led for most of the game and had a chance to steal it near the end of the wild affair.
Peters, who finished with seven points and only eight field-goal attempts, canned a 3 with 1:58 left in the contest to draw her squad to within two points. But after each team traded turnovers, North proceeded to miss three straight attempts.
Then it was South Eugene's turn to hurt itself.
The Axemen knocked down just two of their seven free-throw attempts in the last 40 seconds. McKenna Vanderkley missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and — after a Black Tornado timeout — Ellis drove hard to the bucket and scored to even the contest at 27 with less than 30 seconds remaining.
To the charity stripe went Claire Thallon, who missed both her shots. But North couldn't get the rebound, and back South Eugene went to the line with 10.2 seconds to go. Vanderkley's first attempt was no good, but the second one went through to give the Axemen a 28-27 advantage.
On the next possession, North turned the ball over on the inbounds pass, Vanderkley was fouled and the senior wing buried one of her two free throws.
Ellis got off a deep 3-point try with 2.1 seconds on the clock, but missed.
"It's definitely heartbreaking," Peters said. "It's really sad it had to end on this note, but I think that the team gave it their all."
South Eugene's zone frazzled North, which struggled greatly to get Peters or senior post Maryssa Becker (who had just four points) involved down low.
"We haven't faced it much but we were working on it in practice," North sophomore wing Sydney Thomas said of the zone they saw Wednesday. "Mostly our shots didn't go down because we are used to throwing into our post, to our all-star players, and we couldn't do that with the zone. So we were trying to get our shots and they just wouldn't fall."
Peters was 0 for 2 at halftime, when the Black Tornado led 18-13, and she didn't take a shot in the second quarter.
South Eugene took the permanent lead on a Vanderkley bucket with 1:17 left in the third quarter.
"We told the girls before every game this year, because we've really struggled to score, is we need to get defensive stops and they've really worked on it this year," South Eugene head coach Steve Eastburn said. "We're trying to make the other team score over the top of us and not make anything easy. And they did a really good job of that tonight."
Said Peters: "Tonight just wasn't my night. I had a few missed shots and layins. They were tough. They have big bodies in there. They are a very solid team."
The Axemen needed just about every one of their defensive stops: the squad was 11 of 47 from the floor. South Eugene was 6 of 13 from the free-throw line, and North was 2 of 4.
"They made the important ones and got some stops, and luckily we weren't in any foul trouble tonight so we could get some fouls and stop the clock," Eastburn said.
The first quarter was a disaster: North was 2 of 7 from the field with seven turnovers and South Eugene 1 of 14. Things got better, but not by much. Ten minutes elapsed between the Axemen's first and second bucket.
Ellis led North — which used just one player off the bench — with eight points. Thallon had 11 points, five rebounds and three steals for South Eugene, which recorded a 23-17 rebounding edge.
SOUTH EUGENE (29) — Nordstrand 0, Sims 2, Thallon 11, Tessler 2, Fager 7, Moran 0, Vanderkley 4, Mo. Henshaw 3, Evans 0, Meyer 0, Me. Henshaw 0. Totals: 11 6-13 29.
NORTH MEDFORD (27) — Ellis 8, Thomas 2, Peters 7, O'Connor 3, Williamson 3, Becker 4. Totals: 11 2-4 27.
South Eugene 2 11 12 4 — 29
North Medford 5 13 4 5 — 27
3-point goals — South Eugene 1 (Thallon 1), North Medord 3 (Peters 1, O'Connor 1, Williamson 1).
Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or email email@example.com