At least for the opening four minutes, Southridge did precisely what it wanted and held a 9-8 advantage over No. 2-ranked South Medford in the second round of the Class 6A girls basketball state playoffs.
But while the Skyhawks had the appearance of a team simply trying to hold on, the Panthers remained poised and proved that they were just getting warmed up Saturday night at South Medford High.
Led by senior Kylie Towry and with a nice spark off the bench by freshman Julissa Tago, South Medford earned the right to defend its 6A state title by outscoring Southridge by 40 points over the ensuing 28 minutes en route to a 78-39 triumph.
"I'm pumped right now," Towry said after the game with a broad smile. "We just finished a great conference season (as undefeated champions) and now going back to the Rose Garden for the third year in a row, it's really exciting."
The Panthers, who went 30-0 to claim last year's state crown, open the eight-team state tournament at 8:15 p.m. Thursday against St. Mary's Academy. The Blues (19-7) beat West Salem, 59-49, to earn their own repeat trip to the Rose Garden.
Towry led the Panthers (22-4) with four 3-pointers and 20 points overall to go with five rebounds and three assists, while Tago came off the bench for 14 points, four steals and three assists.
South Medford's balanced attack included 12 points and six rebounds by junior Ashley Bolston, 10 points and four assists by sophomore Andee Ritter and six points apiece by seniors Yaremi Mejia and Luisa Tago and sophomore Keyari Sleezer.
Mejia also notched five assists, three rebounds and three steals as one of three seniors celebrating their final home game.
"When all arms are firing for us, we're good and we've got it," added Towry. "We definitely pushed the tempo a lot, especially in the beginning. We pushed each other and pushed ourselves to get to where we are now."
Southridge (11-15) had already lost once this season to South Medford, 66-42 in the second game of the year for each. The Skyhawks tried to implement an active 2-3 zone and focus on getting back on defense, but all that broke down once the Panthers found their rhythm midway through the first quarter.
Towry's second 3-pointer of the quarter was followed by a blocked 3-pointer and ensuing layin by Ritter and a steal and layin by Mejia to put the Panthers up 15-9.
The effort was only cranked up from there by South Medford, which opened the second quarter with a basket by Luisa Tago and then consecutive steals and buckets by Ritter, Towry and Julissa Tago to build a 15-point cushion.
"Tonight they had a really tough team in Southridge, which came out with a lot of energy," said South Medford head coach Tom Cole. "I feel like our kids had to match that and they did. And then they realized that in order to separate themselves they really needed to take the defensive intensity to an even higher level and I think they did that."
As if the Panthers already didn't have enough firepower on the floor, Julissa Tago dialed it up a notch in hopes of making her first trip to the final state tournament site by coming off the bench with 11 of her points in a first half that ended with South Medford ahead 46-22. The 5-foot-9 freshman was 4-for-7 from the field and 3-for-3 from the foul line, scoring with deadly mid-range jumpers and drives to the basket.
"The younger Tago girl, man, she just shot the lights out," said Southridge head coach Matt Humphreys. "She didn't do that to us in the first game. She was huge, she just hit everything. It didn't seem like she missed in the first half."
Julissa Tago actually scored 11 against the Skyhawks in their first meeting, with Mejia (18), Bolston (14) and Towry (12) also stepping up after Luisa Tago suffered a knee injury in South's opening game one night prior.
On Saturday, it was more of the same team-first approach that led the Panthers to a 76-point drubbing of Lakeridge in their playoff opener. South Medford will take an 11-game winning streak to Portland.
"For our kids to contribute as they did tonight, I was really proud of them," said Cole. "I thought everybody that came into the game for any portion of time came in and contributed with a defensive intensity and just worked hard."
The Panthers shot an impressive 50 percent from the field in each half — 18-for-36 in the first and 11-for-22 in the second — and limited Southridge to no more than four field goals in any of the four quarters. The Skyhawks were 13-for-42 from the field overall.
Southridge senior Kylie Dummer paced her team with 12 points and seven rebounds while Hannah Rose added seven points and four boards.
"They just played a great game on their home court, they're a really talented team," said Humphreys. "They shot the lights out, which we kinda were hoping that they wouldn't, but it's their home court so they did. Credit to them. They hit a lot of shots and moved the ball really well against us, they're a great team."
While the smiles were present long after the game had ended, Cole admitted to a feeling beyond joy and relief as his players cut down the net as a memento for their achievement.
"It's a different vibe this year because of the value of the seniors," he said of Towry, Mejia and Luisa Tago. "Losing three kids who have been four-year starters and been a part of this program and really responsible for changing things and making history, from that standpoint it's different. We've spent a lot of years together playing basketball so it's emotional."
SOUTHRIDGE (39) — Dummer 12, Rose 7, Brock 5, Miles 5, Giles 3, George 3, Bell 2, Hustler 2, Hansen 0, Carlson 0, Fieldhouse, Blackman 0, Weaver 0. Totals: 13-42 10-17 39.
SOUTH MEDFORD (78) — Towry 20, J. Tago 14, Bolston 12, Ritter 10, Mejia 6, L. Tago 6, Sleezer 6, Falls 4, Cox 0, Williams 0. Totals: 29-58 16-23 78.
Southridge 12 10 6 11 — 39
South Medford 19 27 14 18 — 78
3-point goals — Southridge 3-13 (Dummer 1, Rose 1, George 1), South Medford 4-15 (Towry 4).
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry