In the heat of good competition, it's typically the little things that put a boys basketball team over the top.
On Friday night, those little things seemed to turn up in South Medford's advantage time and again as the 10th-ranked Panthers put an exclamation mark on their fourth straight Southern Oregon Hybrid championship.
South Medford jumped out to an 11-0 lead and never trailed — despite a determined effort by North Medford — en route to a thrilling 56-51 victory in the Black Tornado gymnasium.
"We knew coming in here that it was going to be a dogfight and we had to play 32 minutes," said South Medford interim head coach Kirk Daley. "I'm so proud of them, they just hung in there and hung in there even when there was a push from North Medford. They did a great job, I love these guys."
Four Panthers scored in double figures, led by a monster 15-point, 13-rebound effort by junior Cameron English, as the South Medford program earned its third straight outright crown and at least a share of a 12th conference title in 13 seasons.
"We knew it was for the conference championship so we just came ready to play and tried to do as much as we could to get the win," said the 6-foot-7 English. "It was pretty physical out there but we just gave it our all to come up with the win."
South Medford (17-6, 10-1 SOH) had already clinched at least a share of the crown entering the contest, with only North Medford (15-7, 7-4) able to pull into a tie heading into the cross-town clash.
A slow start and an ineffective night at the free-throw line (6-for-18) cut short any Black Tornado hopes of a potential first league title since the 1998-99 season.
"They came out a little more mentally prepared than we did and they were ready for it and we weren't," said North Medford junior Tristen Holmes. "That's what it comes down to, who's ready and who's willing to fight for it more, and they had the edge on us today."
South Medford senior Ben Orndoff had 12 points, four rebounds and two steals and junior Brayden Massey added 12 points and three assists. Panthers senior Mark Winans played a huge role in sealing the victory with seven of his 10 points in the fourth quarter to go with four assists and two blocked shots.
"That's the great thing about this team, everyone can contribute at any time," said Orndoff, who also doubled as a shadow defender on Holmes. "It was just a great job by Mark, Brayden, Cameron, everyone ... that was a great win for all of us to share. I'm just ecstatic right now."
North Medford was able to trim its deficit to one point at 33-32 late in the third quarter but missed 3-pointers by Holmes and Julian Gray, who had a team-high 15 points, left the door open for South. The Panthers answered with a 3-pointer by Trenton Monical to extend their lead.
The Black Tornado again rallied to within one point at 39-38 with five minutes to play but an inside basket by English off a Winans pass and then a three-point play by Winans helped the Panthers maintain their advantage.
A third 3-pointer by Gray made it 44-41 with just under three minutes to play but that's as close as North would get down the stretch. Free throws by English, Orndoff, Massey and Winans — along with a kickout by Winans for a 3-pointer by Massey — sealed the high-energy contest.
"They had a nice run in the third quarter but we were able to hold that back and extend the lead throughout the fourth," said Orndoff. "All the guys did a great job of contributing and we all knocked down our free throws at the end of the game for a four-peat baby."
The Panthers were 9-for-10 from the foul line in the final 2 1/2 minutes and 12-for-15 overall in the fourth, while the Black Tornado stumbled to a 4-for-12 effort from the charity stripe in the final frame.
"We got back in it, we just shot ourselves in the foot with free throws," said North Medford head coach Scott Plankenhorn. "Every time we had another chance to make a mini-run, we missed a free throw and they went down and made a couple free throws."
"You can't go 6-for-18 from the free-throw line against a quality team," added Plankenhorn. "We're playing for a championship, they're playing for a championship and free throws were the difference in the game."
Holmes finished with 13 points and six rebounds but was an uncharacteristic 4-for-7 from the foul line, possibly because of the energy he had to extend against South. Orndoff led the defensive effort on Holmes but got plenty of help from Winans, Massey and whoever else was in the area when the 6-foot-2 sharpshooter found a glimmer of daylight.
"When you're having a good season you've got to expect teams to come out and try to do everything they can to stop you," added Holmes. "They're a really good defensive team and they got into me and made me have to work for everything I got."
Aaron Browne-Moore added seven points, seven rebounds and three assists for the Tornado, while fellow seniors Matt Ecker (six points), Jack Powers (six rebounds) and Jesus Carrasco (five points) were instrumental in getting North back into the game after its early drought.
For the Panthers, Friday's win marked the last game they will play without head coach Dennis Murphy on the sidelines. As part of the Medford teachers' strike, Murphy hasn't been able to coach the team since his team beat the Tornado, 57-47, on Feb. 4. In his place, Daley went 4-0 at the helm in his first coaching stint since the mid-1990s at St. Mary's High, where he also played under Murphy.
When asked if clinching another SOH title for Murphy had special meaning on this night, Daley kept his role and the win in perspective.
"I'm just excited that we beat North, to be honest," he said. "We just take one game at a time. It sounds like Murph's going to be back on Tuesday so I'm just glad I can hand it to him and say, 'It's all yours big fella.'"
SOUTH MEDFORD (56) — English 15, Orndoff 12, Massey 12, Winans 10, Monical 4, Keepes 2, Bradford 1, Robertson 0, Lupton 0. Totals: 17-38 19-27 56.
NORTH MEDFORD (51) — Gray 15, Holmes 13, Browne-Moore 7, Ecker 6, Carrasco 5, Bush 2, Barry 2, Powers 1, Polataivao 0, Wilkins 0. Totals: 20-48 6-18 51.
South Medford 14 14 9 19 — 56
North Medford 7 14 12 18 — 51
3-point goals — South Medford 3-8 (Massey 2, Monical 1), North Medford 5-15 (Gray 3, Carrasco 1, Holmes 1). Fouled out — Polataivao.
JV score — South Medford 75, North Medford 62.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry