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PORTLAND — Leave it to South Medford's smallest player to come up with the biggest effort during Friday's Class 6A girls basketball state semifinals here at the Rose Garden.
Standing a generous 5-foot-7 — and all heart — Panthers senior Yaremi Mejia salvaged an otherwise shaky effort by the second-ranked Panthers with a clutch jumper to break a 31-all tie with 20 seconds to play against Tigard.
Not done, Mejia then upped the defensive pressure and forced a turnover to give her team possession with nine seconds to go. Fellow senior Kylie Towry iced the nail-biter with a pair of free throws with 2.8 seconds left to help the Panthers hold on for a 35-31, hard-fought victory.
"She has been the heart and soul of this team for four years," said South Medford head coach Tom Cole, whose team advanced to its second straight 6A title game. "She's made a lot of big shots in her time at South Medford."
Tonight's championship final will be at 6:30 and features a rematch of last year's state semifinals, where the Panthers beat Central Catholic en route to the first state title in program history. The top-ranked Rams (25-3) held off No. 3 Oregon City, 57-52, in Friday's other semifinal. Tennessee-bound Jordan Reynolds (22 points) led three Rams in double figures to help her team advance to the final for the first time since 2005.
Despite leading the game from early in the second quarter, South Medford (24-4) appeared to be on a downward spiral against a Tigard team that had nothing to lose and played with every ounce of energy it could muster.
The sixth-ranked Tigers (24-5) scored four straight points and tied the game on a driving effort by Megan Risinger with 1:42 to play. South Medford drew up a play after a timeout for a go-ahead shot but Mejia's pass to Towry sailed too high in the corner and gave the ball back to Tigard with one minute to go.
On the ensuing possession, however, Tigard junior Lexi Carter tried to shake free but stumbled on a crossover move and fell to the ground, losing the ball in the process.
The Panthers worked the ball around the court for a few passes before Mejia finally decided enough was enough. She split the defense and pulled up just in front of the free-throw line, arcing a shot over 6-1 freshman Elise Conroy that was all net — much to the relief of the Panther faithful.
"The last shot, I was just feeling it," said Mejia, who was 4-for-9 from the field for 10 points and South's OSAA player of the game. "It was a great shot and amazing. After that the team got reunited and we were like, 'We're just going to finish hard.'"
Cole said Mejia's effort simply was a testament to her strong-willed personality.
"When she threw the last turnover ... I could see it in her face just the disappointment," said the coach. "But true to her character she came right back, fearless. When the game was on the line she handled the possession and made up for it, and I think that's what makes really tough kids and shows leadership, and that's exactly who she was."
Towry, who also had 10 points despite going 2-for-10 from the field, said she had ultimate confidence in her four-year running mate to make a difference when it mattered most.
"That's her confidence and it's great because we have trust in her that she's going to put that up and it's going in," said Towry. "And as soon as it does, we're playing defense."
There was a lot of defense being played Friday night, and most of it was from the Tigard side. The Tigers, who led 10-8 through one quarter, used their aggressive 2-3 zone to put the Panthers on their heels and dictate the tempo of the game.
"It doesn't matter who we're playing, we just challenge every pass and try to get tips on balls and challenge every shot," said Tigard head coach Steve Naylor. "People think when you play a 2-3 zone you're going to give up a lot of 3s but you don't have to if you want to work really, really hard."
The Tigers most certainly worked hard on this night — far surpassing the effort put forth by a tight South squad — but that didn't stop the Panthers from settling for deep shot after deep shot. And very few seemed to be falling on this night, with South going 4-for-15 from beyond the arc — often NBA distance — and 11-for-37 overall (30 percent) on a lot of runners.
"We just told the girls this is one opportunity," said Naylor. "I don't think Tigard's been in a semifinal since 1989, and that wasn't lost on the girls. I said if we're going to go out, we're going to go out with the best effort we've ever had before and they just came up a little bit short offensively unfortunately."
Tigard got 13 points, six rebounds, five steals and three assists from Emilee Cincotta, nine points from Risinger but only five from Carter, who was 2-for-11 from the field with seven turnovers as the focus of South's defensive attention.
The Panthers created 18 steals and forced 22 turnovers but had an uncustomary 15 turnovers on their end. Andee Ritter again was a key defensive influence for South Medford but struggled to 3-for-13 shooting — 1-for-8 from 3-point range — to finish with seven points, three steals, two assists and two blocks.
Ashley Bolston appeared the most frustrated on the night, missing her only two shot attempts, but was able to grab seven rebounds and go 4-for-4 from the foul line. She joined Luisa Tago and Mejia with a team-high four steals in a game that was far from normal for the up-tempo Panthers.
"Not a typical flow of things by any means but I think you have to give credit to Tigard," said Cole. "For all of the buzz about what they're not, what they are is a tremendously tough, disciplined, gritty team and it showed. Maybe they didn't have the most talented of offensive players but they had a grittiness and a toughness that they were going to compete for 32 minutes."
"Even when we felt like we had a little bit of a window and got a 10- point lead in the second quarter, they stormed right back," he added. "They just hung in there and continued to do the same thing throughout the game that was their style of play and we had a tough time with it."
The pressure of being the defending state champions seemed to be weighing the Panthers down, and the allowance of a lot of physical play caught South Medford somewhat off guard.
"I think it was a little bit of pressure on us because we want to get (back to the finals) so bad and their pressure was just to knock us out," said Towry. "We just had to pull through that and shake off the pressure and everything. It's just a deep breath now and we're ready for tomorrow."
Central Catholic has yet to win a state crown and relies heavily on its starting five, with Reynolds, Stanford-bound Kailee Johnson and Tyleur Kotzian-Upshaw playing every minute in the first two Portland games.
In last year's semifinals, Central Catholic built a 14-2 lead before losing to the Panthers, 62-45, thanks to one of South's patented scoring surges. South Medford trimmed its deficit to 17-13 by the end of the first quarter, went on a 15-0 run in the second quarter to take a 29-26 halftime lead and then built a reasonably comfortable margin early in the third quarter to win going away.
Mejia said the Panthers will need to come out with a better effort tonight to make that happen again. With Central Catholic's boys and girls teams playing for state titles in back-to-back games, the Rams are sure to have a rowdy bunch of supporters in their hometown.
"We've got to start from the beginning really tough and just play like we really want it and go hard all the time and play to our game and not their game," she said. "We just need to play as a team, like a family."
Cincotta 5-6 2-2 13, Risinger 2-5 5-6 9, Carter 2-11 1-1 5, Santos 1-2 0-0 2, Conroy 1-2 0-0 2, Roshak 0-1 0-0 0, Mayhew 0-1 0-0 0. Totals: 11-28 8-9 31.
SOUTH MEDFORD (24-4)
Towry 2-10 5-5 10, Mejia 4-9 0-0 10, Ritter 3-13 0-0 7, Bolston 0-2 4-4 4, J. Tago 1-1 0-3 2, L. Tago 1-2 0-0 2, Falls 0-0 0-0 0, Sleezer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 11-37 9-12 35.
Tigard 10 9 8 4 — 31
South Medford 8 14 7 6 — 35
3-point goals—Tigard 1-2 (Cincotta 1-1, Roshak 0-1), South Medford 4-15 (Mejia 2-3, Ritter 1-8, Towry 1-4). Rebounds—Tigard 25 (Cincotta 6), South Medford 19 (Bolston 7). Assists—Tigard 4 (Cincotta 3), South Medford 5 (Ritter 2, Bolston 2). Total fouls—Tigard 11, South Medford 13.
ODS Player of the Game: Yaremi, Mejia, South Medford
ODS Player of the Game: Emilee Cincotta, Tigard
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry