PORTLAND — South Medford's top-ranked girls basketball team did all it really needed to do Wednesday afternoon at the Moda Center.
Now the Panthers will take a breath and go for bigger and better on Friday.
With senior Ashley Bolston leading the charge in a sluggish opener to the Class 6A state tournament, South Medford earned its third straight trip to the semifinal round with a 46-35 victory over South Salem.
Bolston managed 19 points and seven rebounds, taking over the game in key stretches to help offset an afternoon tilt that lacked rhythm on either end of the court. The 6-foot-2 Washington State signee also helped limit South Salem standout Katie McWilliams to only two second-half field goals and five points overall.
"I thought Ashley Bolston took the game over and really dominated both offensively and defensively," said Panthers head coach Tom Cole. "I thought she did a great job against Katie McWilliams, who's an outstanding player, and I thought she demonstrated a lot of senior leadership. It's her fourth time here and you could see that she played like a woman possessed."
Bolston had half of South Medford's points as the Panthers took a 22-17 halftime lead and finished 6-for-8 from the field overall to help her team to a 14th straight victory.
"She definitely goes out there and plays hard and pushes us," South Medford junior Keyari Sleezer said of Bolston.
South Medford (25-3) will next play Beaverton at 1:30 p.m. Friday. The fifth-seeded Beavers (21-6) used an active 2-3 zone defense to upend fourth-seeded Clackamas, 40-26, in their quarterfinals clash.
To their credit, the Panthers never wavered in a game that remained close throughout thanks to solid defense by South Salem (22-6) and an unusually poor effort from the free-throw line (19-for-34).
"I think staying together as a team kept us going," said Bolston. "We kept picking each other up and that helped."
It also helped that Sleezer provided a perfect complement to Bolston, scoring seven points in the first half and six more in the third quarter before finishing with 18 points. She also had five rebounds.
"Keyari is a kid who has been under the radar up here," said Cole. "Everybody talks about all these names and this kid came out tonight and had a tough defensive assignment against a highly touted kid in (Evina) Westbrook and she made some big buckets, especially in the third quarter, that were critical."
Sleezer scored a pair of early baskets to get the Panthers going in the second half. She was forced to the sidelines with her fourth foul 15 seconds into the fourth quarter before returning to nail down the win by going 5-for-8 from the foul line in the final four minutes.
"I've been practicing hard and really ready to get here and win state so I was really pumped to show what I have," said Sleezer, who has shouldered a bigger scoring load since Andee Ritter was lost for the season to a torn ACL in January.
South Medford sophomore Julissa Tago took on more of a role as facilitator on Wednesday but finished with three points, three assists and a team-high 11 rebounds, while freshman Lauren Orndoff had five points and Jasmin Falls pulled down four boards.
South Salem was led by Westbrook, who managed 10 points on 2-for-12 shooting to go with four rebounds, while Jordan Woodvine had eight points and three boards. Katie Donovan added six points and six rebounds and McWilliams, who was 2-for-9 from the field, pulled down seven boards.
Neither team shot well from the field, with South Medford slightly better at 13-for-35 (37 percent) while South Salem was 13-for-41 (32 percent). The Saxons also turned the ball over 17 times.
"I felt our kids played hard and scrapped for everything we could, we just couldn't shoot a very good percentage," said South Salem head coach Nick McWilliams, whose team was making its first state tourney appearance since 2007. "We didn't play very well but we competed and kept our heads high all the way through."
The Saxons did well to force 15 turnovers by the Panthers, but their best defense may have come at the foul line, where South Medford shot the worst it has all season, according to Cole.
"South Salem is a very good team and we struggled against them at times," said Cole. "This was one that required more of a gut check for our kids and I thought it was a good win for them."
Some of the woes could also be attributed to it being the first game of a tournament played in an arena that houses the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers.
"We lacked a lot of rhythm and I think for some of those kids who have not played here before you could see the nerves set in," said Cole. "There were a lot of turnovers that were unnecessary in the first half, but I thought kids settled down after that. I wish we would've done a better job of shooting free throws, it would've made the game a little easier to breathe."
"I think the first one is the hardest because it puts a lot of pressure on you because it dictates where you sit," added the coach. "I think there's some mental pressure to that so getting this one out of the way, however we did it, was good."
As for not being able to take advantage from the charity stripe, Bolston and company didn't seem too concerned and vowed that Wednesday's experience will only help them as they move along in the tourney.
"We're shooting with nothing behind the basket and normally we're used to a wall there," Bolston said of the Moda Center backdrop. "I know that throws me off so I'm sure it throws everybody else off, too. I think we just need to focus up more when we get there."
SOUTH SALEM (35) — Katie McWilliams 2-9 1-1 5, Jordan Woodvine 4-7 0-2 8, Holly Moorman 0-1 0-0 0, Jenessa Bodine 1-5 0-0 3, Evina Westbrook 2-12 5-7 10, Naomi Wasser 1-2 0-0 3, Katie Donovan 3-5 0-0 6, Erin McNally 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 13-41 6-10 35.
SOUTH MEDFORD (46) — Julissa Tago 0-6 3-6 3, Ashley Bolston 6-8 6-10 19, Lauren Orndoff 2-6 1-2 5, Keyari Sleezer 5-12 8-14 18, Jasmin Falls 0-3 1-2 1, Krystal Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 13-35 19-34 46.
South Salem 10 7 7 11 — 35
South Medford 12 10 11 13 — 46
3-point goals — South Salem 3-9 (McWilliams 0-1, Moorman 0-1, Bodine 1-3, Westbrook 1-3, Wasser 1-1), South Medford 1-4 (Tago 0-1, Bolston 1-1, Sleezer 0-2). Rebounds — South Salem 26 (McWilliams 7), South Medford 31 (Tago 11). Assists — South Salem 6 (McWilliams 2, Bodine 2), South Medford 5 (Tago 3). Fouled out — Woodvine.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry