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South Medford prefers to line up top-flight preseason girls basketball competition when it can.
So far this week, mission accomplished.
The Panthers, ranked No. 1 in Class 6A, played host to West Albany, the No. 2 Class 5A team, and battled to a 55-41 triumph in the South Medford gym Tuesday.
The Bulldogs, playing only their second game, were a state semifinalist last season and have an impressive array of talent back from that team.
"At this point in the season, they're the second best team we've played, without a doubt," said South Medford coach Tom Cole, whose team is 4-1, the lone loss coming to a Washington powerhouse.
"I think they'll be a team that contends for a state championship."
West Albany is 0-2, but its other loss came only a day before in its opener and was to Willamette, the No. 1 team in 5A. Willamette won by the same margin over the Bulldogs, 53-39, that South Medford did.
On Friday, Willamette visits the Panthers.
With West Albany showing no signs of a tough travel day — the team bus pulled into Medford late after getting stuck in traffic on Interstate 5 — South Medford did all it could to forge a five-point halftime lead.
The Panthers then regrouped at halftime and outscored West Albany 17-3 in the third quarter.
"They were able to stretch the floor on us and we struggled on defense in the first half," said Cole. "We were getting beat on some screens and it took us a little while to get it going. They handled our pressure well and didn't turn the ball over in the backcourt."
South Medford's Andee Ritter played only about four minutes in the first half and was saddled with three fouls. Without her on the floor, West Albany guards Corey James and Kyia Duvall were troublesome from outside.
With Ritter back in the game in the third, the complexion of the game changed. She scored seven points in the period and contributed to the solid defensive effort.
"They really felt her presence," said Cole. "That just changes the game for us."
Julissa Tago and Jasmin Falls also came up big during the post-intermission surge on defense and on the boards.
"In the third, we really came out and played with a different level of intensity," said Cole.
Ashley Bolston led the Panthers with 15 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
Keyari Sleezer had 12 points and five rebounds, and Ritter scored 12. Tago had 10 points and three steals and Falls had five boards.
South Medford led by as many as 20 points in the third. Cole put reserves in and the Bulldogs took advantage, cutting the deficit to 10.
"We tried to ride out the storm but it got a little too close for comfort," said Cole, "and we put the starters back in."
James paced West Albany with 13 points. Ashton Siegner, a 6-foot-2 post who will play next year at NCAA Division I Montana, scored 10 while showing poise and deft footwork in the key, said Cole.
WEST ALBANY (41) — James 13, Duvall 9, S. Siegner 0, Nelke 7, A. Siegner 10, B. Smith 0, Sams 0, G. Smith 2, Wetmore 0. Totals: 14 5-6 41.
SOUTH MEDFORD (55) — Williams 0, Tago 10, Johnson 0, Ritter 12, Bolston 15, Orndoff 2, Sleezer 12, Lemons 0, Falls 4, Washington 0. Totals: 22 9-11 55.
West Albany 13 10 3 15 — 41
South Medford 15 13 17 10 — 55
3-point goals — West Albany 8 (James 3, Duvall 3, Nelke 1, A. Siegner 1), South Medford 2 (Ritter 2). Fouled out — A. Siegner.
JV result — West Albany won.