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Whether Westview had the best player on the court in Tennessee-bound senior Jaime Nared was a moot point for those in the South Medford girls basketball program Friday night.
The top-ranked Panthers have made their way in recent years by utilizing a bevy of weapons to throw at opponents, and that's exactly what provided the difference during a key nonconference matchup with No. 8 Westview.
Washington State-bound Ashley Bolston did well to slow Nared and counter her on both ends of the floor, while junior Andee Ritter and sophomore Julissa Tago also made solid all-around contributions for South Medford.
But on this night, unheralded junior Keyari Sleezer proved pivotal in the Panthers' 64-54 victory over the Wildcats, whom South Medford beat for the Class 6A state title in 2012.
The 5-foot-11 Sleezer connected on 6 of 7 shots from 3-point range and finished with a career-high 22 points for the Panthers (8-2).
"She was the critical difference tonight, no question," said South Medford head coach Tom Cole. "There was so much made about Ashley playing Jaime and it was a great matchup and I think Ashley did a phenomenal job defensively, but Keyari's buckets were timely and they were momentum-shifters at every point. At any time that the lead would dwindle, she'd fire another 3 and get it back up."
The Panthers held a 15-13 lead through one quarter thanks to a late bucket by Tago, but Sleezer came out of the break and opened the second quarter with two straight 3-pointers to give her team a cushion.
When Westview cut its 10-point halftime deficit in half to open the third quarter, Sleezer again stepped up with her fourth 3-pointer and then added another moments later to restore order for the Panthers. Her trey to end the third quarter gave South a 52-39 advantage heading to the final eight minutes.
"I've just really been working on it and I was ready to take the shots," said Sleezer, who finished 6-for-12 from the field with five rebounds, two assists and one block.
"It really shows me a lot and really encourages me to get better," she added of her big night, "and really sets us up for the conference for our whole team."
Bolston chipped in 16 points, five rebounds and six assists and Ritter had 11 points, six rebounds, six steals, three assists and two blocks. Tago had nine points and five rebounds.
"I felt like the thing that we walk away with is another kid stepping up to lead us," said Cole. "Ultimately at the end of the season you've gotta be able to have five kids that are all threats. When you have that, you have a special team. For Keyari to do it in a big game like this, it's a good confidence-builder for all of us."
The 6-2 Nared was as good as advertised, notching 24 points, 18 rebounds and three assists after averaging around 35 points for Westview (6-4).
"We knew that we weren't going to shut her down, but we also knew that we weren't going to let her go for 40, as she's already done three times this season," said Cole. "I thought how Ashley played, especially with three fouls (in the first quarter), she played with a lot of courage and she was really smart. She was able to be aggressive enough without being out of control and we couldn't afford to lose her at any point in the game, not in this game, she was too valuable."
The Wildcats were able to trim their deficit to five points with three minutes to play — largely due to some inefficiency at the free-throw line by South — but Sleezer, again, helped fend off Westview with a pair of foul shots. Tago followed with a spinning layup and Ritter was perfect on four free throws to put the game out of reach.
"When you play a good team and you're competing, it's whoever gets that little spurt and that's basically what it came down to for us," said Westview head coach Lindsay Strothers.
The fact that Sleezer was behind most of those scoring spurts was not lost on the affable Westview coach.
"That's what killed us," said Strothers. "She hit six (3-pointers), I believe. Now after two, you kinda say, 'Wow, maybe we should do something here,' but it took us awhile. But once they get in a groove, you've kinda let the cat out of the bag so to speak."
The Panthers managed only one field goal on six attempts in the fourth quarter but were 10-for-17 from the foul line — and 24-for-36 overall — to keep Westview at bay.
Dana Bentz added 15 points and six rebounds and Bria Thames came off the bench for 12 points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats, who were 21-for-61 from the field but held South to 17-for-45 shooting.
"We came and we competed, which is one of the things we've been focusing on since our last couple games," said Strothers. "We just kinda played not as hard as we could've played but tonight we competed, and so now we'll go into our next game on Tuesday against Canby understanding what it takes to compete and hopefully get out on the other side of that."
WESTVIEW (54) — Nared 24, Bentz 15, Thames 12, Mahuna 3, Scoggin 0, Garrity 0, Williams 0, Carlson 0. Totals: 21-61 11-18 54.
SOUTH MEDFORD (64) — Sleezer 22, Bolston 16, Ritter 11, Tago 9, Falls 4, Williams 2, Orndoff 0. Totals: 17-45 24-36 64.
Westview 13 10 16 15 — 54
South Medford 15 18 19 12 — 64
3-point goals — Westview 1-8 (Mahuna 1), South Medford 6-14 (Sleezer 6). Fouled out — Scoggin, Williams.
JV score — South Medford 59, Westview 31.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry