Nothing worth having ever comes easily, but when you're finally able to secure that elusive prize, there's nothing sweeter.
With only two varsity returners and a host of questions entering the 2012-13 boys basketball season, South Medford cast all those doubts aside and kept an eye trained toward successful growth as a team.
Those hours of faithful dedication were finally rewarded Friday night at South Medford High as the Panthers earned a trip to Portland's Rose Garden with a hard-fought, 70-66 victory over Lincoln in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.
"You can do nothing but be proud of these kids," said Panthers head coach Dennis Murphy. "To think where they were and what people thought ... and how about this we're the first in (to the state tournament) after playing the first game of the night. It's great for our kids."
South Medford (21-5) has now advanced to the final tournament site in 11 of the last 12 seasons, winning a state title in 2007 and finishing second in 2006. The seventh-ranked Panthers will square off against No. 3 Central Catholic (22-4) in the state quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Rams were a 78-70 overtime winner over Century on Friday.
"Me and a few other guys on the team have been there before and it's a blast so we knew that we needed to get back," South Medford junior Mark Winans said of playing in the Rose Garden, home of the Portland Trail Blazers. "We just knew we had to come out and play focused and play strong and we could accomplish that goal."
Winans was certainly the driving force early against the Cardinals, pouring in 22 of his career-high 25 points in a first half that saw him go 8-for-9 from the field with six 3-pointers. Winans averaged 10.7 points per game entering the contest.
"I don't know where that came from but I'm glad it did," said Murphy. "I know Mark wants to do well and he showed up and played awfully well in, at this point, the biggest game of our season. I'm awfully proud of him and what he did."
As has been the case this season, Winans was far from alone in leading the balanced Panthers. Jesse Mondry added 16 points and four rebounds and fellow senior Adrian Garcia had 11 points and 11 assists, while junior CJ Keepes chipped in with 10 points and six rebounds.
"I just came out calm and it was really my team that got me the buckets," said Winans. "They made the drives and found me, I just was the one that connected the shot. It was really the team that did it tonight."
South Medford needed every bit of effort the team could provide against a Lincoln team that had no interest in going quietly into the offseason. The Cardinals (14-12) had won six straight entering the game and, despite trailing by double digits in each of the first three quarters, cut their deficit to 45-43 heading into the fourth quarter.
Keepes, Mondry and Garcia each scored to open the quarter and push the Panthers' lead back up to eight points but Lincoln held firm and eventually whittled its deficit to 68-66 inside the final 12 seconds on a 3-pointer by senior Nathan Ryan.
South Medford quickly inbounded the ball to Garcia, who broke loose down the left sideline and then hit Winans with a cross-court pass. Trailing Garcia and trying to catch up to foul, Ryan gave him a push after the ball was in Winans' hands and he was called for an intentional foul with seven seconds to play.
Garcia, who had an uncustomary night from the foul line, missed both free throws to give Lincoln a reprieve and the Cardinals fouled him again when the Panthers put the ball in play. This time, however, the senior rolled in the first one and swished the second to push South Medford's advantage to 70-66 with six seconds left.
Lincoln worked the ball to Ryan for a 3-point attempt that caromed off the rim and then the buzzer sounded to set off a Panther party near midcourt.
"I just knew those ones were do-or-die and I had to hit those ones at least," said Garcia, who finished 3-for-6 from the foul line. "It was sort of an off free throw night, I guess, but, oh well, we won."
Senior Matt Toreson added six points and two assists for the Panthers, including a pair of clutch free throws with 46 seconds to go to counter Lincoln's scoring.
South Medford went 28-for-46 from the field (61 percent) and a perfect 9-for-9 down the stretch in the fourth quarter. The Panthers were 5-for-8 from the foul line in the final minute and 8-for-12 overall.
PJ Smith had 20 points and five rebounds and fellow seniors John Williams (17 points, six rebounds) and Sam Laverde (11 points) chipped in with key efforts for the Cardinals.
Lincoln helped its cause the most by shooting a crisp 10-for-21 from 3-point range — 5-for-11 in the first half and 5-for-10 in the second. The Cardinals, however, converted only 6 of 14 foul shots and were hurt when two fourth-quarter possessions saw the ball pinball around before finding a South player alone under the basket for an easy bucket.
"I thought we had a chance, obviously," said Lincoln head coach Sean Christensen, noting his team shot the ball better than usual at 25-for-45 (56 percent). "We started making shots after they shot the lights out the first half. I knew they weren't going to shoot it like that in the second half so I knew we had a chance.
"Our guys believed and we had a chance. We got some tough calls against us in the second half and we just didn't make plays down the stretch, I guess. It's a tough loss for nine seniors."
On the other side stood Murphy, a combination of relief and pride for how his Panthers were able to endure yet another challenger.
"It was what we knew it would be, it's never easy at 16," said the 25th-year South Medford coach. "We knew they would just battle like mad and, again, we just never give up. The harder you play the luckier you get and I think there were a couple times where the ball bounced to funny spots and all of a sudden it ends up in the good guys' hands and we lay up and get a bucket out of it. These kids just have great heart."
LINCOLN (66) — Smith 20, Williams 17, Laverde 11, Ryan 9, Peeler 7, Leibovich 2, Jackson 0, Bloch 0. Totals: 25-45 6-14 66.
SOUTH MEDFORD (70) — Winans 25, Mondry 16, Garcia 11, Keepes 10, Toreson 6, Lallo 2, Orndoff 0, Robertson 0, Massey 0, Carpenter 0. Totals: 28-46 8-12 70.
Lincoln 16 11 16 23 — 66
South Medford 22 14 9 25 — 70
3-point goals — Lincoln 10-21 (Smith 4, Williams 3, Ryan 3), South Medford 6-13 (Winans 6).
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry