South Medford's history of getting to the state quarterfinals is well-documented, with the Panther boys reaching that point in 12 of the last 13 years.
In recent years, however, South Medford has struggled to get beyond that point ever since the Class 6A state tournament moved back to Portland's Moda Center in 2010 from the friendlier confines of McArthur Court in Eugene.
Ever since South Medford played in the state championship game in 2006 and '07, the Panthers have lost all three quarterfinals matchups they've been in and struggled to recover from that opening loss. In fairness, all but one team that pinned a tournament-opening loss on South Medford during the current drought has advanced to the championship game, and the exception involved a fourth meeting with North Medford in 2012.
"We've always been in them, it's just can you get over the hump," said Panthers head coach Dennis Murphy, whose team lost by one point to eventual runner-up Central Catholic last year. "You hope that if that situation presents itself again that we would be able to."
"They won't move it back to Eugene so we better figure out how to win (in Portland)," he added. "There's no question that's a concern because we haven't won a game since it's been back up there, but I do think that we're going with a different mindset and probably a different arsenal. We have a number of kids that are returning that have been there, and the two previous years we only had three kids each year."
Seven players for South Medford (20-6) saw playing time during last year's state tournament, which ended in a third consecutive 0-2 performance by the Panthers. While continuing to grow as a team has been a focal point throughout the season, there's also been an underlying theme of not letting another opportunity slip through their fingers come tournament time.
"Last year we weren't really satisfied with how we played in Portland so we want to go up there again and do better," said Panthers senior Ben Orndoff.
In order to accomplish that feat, the Southern Oregon Hybrid champions will have to knock off a Jesuit team steeped in program history. The Crusaders (17-8) finished second to Sunset in the Metro League but won an Oregon-record four straight big-school state titles from 2009-12.
"They've got a great history and great pride and (Jesuit head coach) Gene Potter does a helluva job," said Murphy, whose team beat Jesuit in the semifinals in 2006 and '07. "It ain't gonna be easy by any means but if we can do the things we've been doing, which is take care of the basketball and run our stuff to get us some scoring opportunities, then I think we can compete."
South Medford's quarterfinals game will be at 3:15 p.m. Thursday and follows a tournament-opening tilt at 1:30 that features a rematch of last year's final between West Linn and Central Catholic. In the other quarterfinals, Sunset plays South Salem at 6:30 p.m. and Sheldon plays Clackamas at 8:15. All eight tournament teams finished among the top eight in the final 6A power rankings.
Jesuit marks the third straight Metro League team South Medford will face in the playoffs, with the Panthers earlier dispatching Beaverton and Southridge by an average of 15 points. The Crusaders generate a bulk of their offense through full-court defensive pressure, which was key in the team's 53-41 second-round win over Reynolds last Saturday.
"They just defend you so well and trap you all over the court, and often they trap you in spots you're not expecting to be trapped," said Murphy.
The guard play of 6-foot senior Daniel Nelson and 6-1 junior Reid Bucy have been key thus far, along with the interior play of 6-7 senior post Jack Nadelhoffer and 6-5 senior post Henry Mondeaux, who has signed to play football at the University of Oregon. Nelson was a first-team all-Metro selection, while Mondeaux was on the second team and Bucy was a third-team pick.
The Crusaders have outscored teams by an average of 54-47 thus far and enter the tournament having won 10 of their last 11 games. The Panthers have been equally hot and own an 11-game winning streak built on stifling defense and balanced offense.
South Medford is an especially different team than the one many saw from mid-December to early January. The Panthers have finally gotten healthy and adjusted into their roles to make the team play at a much higher level.
"I think we're playing with a lot of confidence right now and we've got a little bit of a swagger, which I like," said Murphy.
"There's no superstar on this basketball team," he added. "We have a lot of very good players and kids that have truly bought in and really understand their roles and, consequently, we've become better. I really think we all have to admit right now that we're playing the best basketball all year."
Senior guards Orndoff and Mark Winans have set the tone with their unselfish play and average 12.8 and 10.6 points, respectively. Junior point guard Brayden Massey (9.2 ppg), junior post Cameron English (7.5 ppg) and senior post C.J. Keepes (5.6 ppg) offer valuable balance to the Panthers, who are also able to dig deep into the bench with seniors Brandon Robertson, Trenton Monical, Tristian Lallo, Brandon Lupton and sophomore Hunter Bradford.
In two playoff wins, the Panthers have limited their opponents to 34 percent shooting from the field while countering with 57-percent success. South Medford also is averaging 17 assists in those victories and has won the rebounding battle.
Winans is making his third trip to the state tournament and is the lone Panther to have a victory under his belt after helping North Medford to a third-place finish in 2012. He said his team's late-season hot streak should be beneficial heading into play at the Moda Center.
"We didn't have a great preseason so now that we've picked it up as a team and we're rolling I think it is an advantage to us because nobody else has really seen the South Medford that is now," said Winans. "It's nice to be the darkhorse sometimes."
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry