North Medford High wrestling coach Phillip Lopez isn't the type to get carried away.
PORTLAND — South Medford waited a touch too long to show its true colors Wednesday night here at the Rose Garden and it cost the seventh-ranked Panthers a shot at the Class 6A state semifinals.
Third-ranked Central Catholic opened a 13-point lead with 91/2 minutes to play and needed every one of those points as the Panthers provided a frantic rally to finish off what turned into a thrilling quarterfinal for those on hand.
South Medford whittled its deficit to two points with possession of the ball but couldn't get over the hump and ultimately fell short to the Rams, 47-46, in a physical battle that left little room for error.
"It becomes very physical up here and it's tougher for our kids to compete that way," said South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy. "We surely didn't quit or anything like that, we really battled and then really battled, but buckets become so much tougher up here. We could probably count 10 different things that we should've done or could've done but you can't leave it up to that."
South Medford will look to prevent a third straight winless trip to the state tournament at 10:45 this morning when it squares off against Sunset in an elimination game. The Apollos (16-11) lost 68-50 to defending champion Jesuit on Wednesday.
"We're going to have to turn things around intensity-wise and be strong on the boards," said South Medford senior Jesse Mondry, "but we really want that win."
Mondry shouldered the load throughout for the Panthers (21-6), knocking down 8 of 13 shots for a game-high 22 points. The 6-foot-5 standout had 13 of his team's 15 points at halftime, when South trailed 18-15, and it was his 3-pointer that began the comeback from the team's biggest deficit at 35-22 late in the third quarter.
"He's unbelievable; he was unreal," said Central Catholic head coach Dan Munson. "He was their guy and what's frustrating was we talked about it and tried to lock guys up and say make somebody else make a play. To their credit he still scored and then other guys knocked down some shots, too."
Besides Mondry, the biggest lift the Panthers received was from little-used sophomore Brayden Massey. The 6-1 guard regrouped from a jittery start to tally seven points and two steals in 11 minutes. Massey's steal and layin after a 3-pointer by Mark Winans helped South trim its deficit to 37-30 heading to the fourth quarter, and he kept up the intensity to spark his team in the fourth.
"It felt really great playing out there with the team at the end of the game," said Massey. "When I first went in (to start the second quarter) I turned the ball over right away and Murph got mad at me and I was scared. I went out there a little nervous, but the second time I was going to come back in Murph asked me, 'Do you really want to play?' and I said, 'Of course,' and just went out there and gave it my all."
Massey's diving steal led to the second basket of the fourth quarter for senior Adrian Garcia, who finished with eight points and two assists on 4-for-5 shooting, and cut Central Catholic's lead to 41-38 with 31/2 to go. After a pair of free throws by Central Catholic's 6-7 senior Austin Dyer, who tallied 19 points and seven rebounds, Garcia repaid the favor and found Massey open on the right wing for an all-net 3-pointer.
Suddenly South Medford found itself down by only two points at 43-41 with plenty of time left to cap the comeback. After a defensive stand, the Panthers whittled down the clock in the final two minutes looking for a good shot and got one when Massey came free at the top of the key, only to have his 3-pointer glance off the rim. Panthers junior CJ Keepes forced a jump ball to give his team another chance, but Garcia couldn't find an open teammate and the Rams earned a five-second violation with 1:11 to go.
The Panthers took a chance and sent Central Catholic sophomore Deante Strickland to the line and were the beneficiary of a miss on the front end of a one-and-one opportunity, but Dyer crashed the boards hard for the rebound and was ultimately fouled on his second putback attempt. Dyer made both to make it 45-41 with 64 seconds left.
Massey again proved clutch with a driving floater that made it 45-43 with 40.3 seconds to go, but Mitchell Franz answered with two free throws. Winans' 3-pointer then fell short and the Rams tried to respond with a breakaway but Massey hustled down the floor to knock the ball away and eventually win possession for his team with 3.7 seconds to go.
Brandon Robertson hit a deep 3-pointer to bring the Panthers within one point but, with only two-tenths of a second left on the clock, all Central Catholic had to do was inbound the ball to secure the nail-biter and return to the semis for the second time in three years.
"What I was proud of us is how our guys finished," said Munson. "South Medford's well-coached and played unbelievably hard and they made it just difficult to do anything out there because they were so well-prepared."
"At times we got close to blowing it open and they kept battling and we just were able to hang on," added the coach. "We're a young team and so at times we play like a young team, which is why all of a sudden we can get up by 13 and then let a team back in the game with little breakdowns."
Keepes led the Panthers with nine rebounds and South limited Central Catholic to 36 percent shooting (15-for-42), but coming so close to a semifinal berth before being denied didn't sit well afterward for South Medford.
"We had a great comeback there in the end," said Mondry, who was his team's OSAA player of the game. "The way that we played in the fourth quarter was how we should've been playing the whole game. We finally realized that and we finally started to understand how intense the game is up here. These teams just play really physical and I think that's what got to us."
Although frustrated by another close loss at the state tournament, Murphy had plenty of praise for the performances put forth by Mondry and Massey in such a tense atmosphere.
"There's no question Jesse really did carry us and made some tough shots and got some tough boards and proved that he belonged here," said Murphy.
"Brayden's not seen a lot of minutes, as a matter of fact the first few minutes were not necessarily pleasant for him, but we felt let's give him another chance and he surely made the best of that opportunity," added the coach. "He got in there and battled and made some big shots. I'm awful proud of that effort."
Still, the slate wipes clean for today and each Panther will have to prove themselves yet again in order to battle for a trophy on Saturday.
"We definitely leave here with some positives but there's also negatives, too," said Massey. "Tomorrow we've just got to come back and play way tougher and battle with the next team we play and get the 'W.'"
CENTRAL CATHOLIC (23-4)
Dyer 6-10 6-7 19, Strickland 1-7 4-6 7, Franz 1-6 4-6 6, Noling 2-5 0-0 5, Nall 2-4 0-0 4, Hallinan 2-6 0-0 4, Brandel 1-2 0-0 2, Scarlett 0-0 0-0 0, Winston 0-2 0-0 0, Cross 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 15-42 14-19 47.
SOUTH MEDFORD (21-6)
Mondry 8-13 4-6 22, Garcia 4-5 0-0 8, Massey 3-5 0-0 7, Winans 1-8 1-2 4, Robertson 1-5 0-0 3, Keepes 1-4 0-0 2, Lallo 0-2 0-0 0, Orndoff 0-0 0-0 0, Toreson 0-3 0-0 0, Carpenter 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-45 5-8 46.
Central Catholic 11 7 19 10 — 47
South Medford 7 8 15 16 — 46
3-point goals — Central Catholic 3-8 (Noling 1-2, Strickland 1-4, Dyer, Austin 1-1, Franz 0-1), South Medford 5-16 (Mondry 2-4, Winans 1-5, Massey 1-2, Robertson, Brandon 1-2, Toreson 0-2, Keepes 0-1). Rebounds — Central Catholic 27 (Dyer 7), South Medford 30 (Keepes 9). Assists — Central Catholic 8 (Strickland 3), South Medford 11 (Winans 3). Total fouls — Central Catholic 13, South Medford 13.