PORTLAND — Midway through the third quarter, South Medford had the look of a champion in its third straight Class 6A girls basketball state championship here at the Moda Center.
After that, however, everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the top-ranked Panthers, much to the delight of No. 2 Oregon City.
South Medford built a 12-point advantage following a leaning basket by senior Ashley Bolston in the third before the wheels ultimately came falling off as the Pioneers answered with a 20-2 run to clutch victory from defeat.
When the dust settled, Oregon City had its first state championship in five years with a 57-48 comeback that was capped by a dogpile at midcourt as South Medford's faithful could only watch in frustration over the missed opportunity after their only loss to an Oregon team this season.
"It's a hard way to lose, it really is," said Panthers head coach Tom Cole, whose team was runner-up for the second straight year. "I really thought our kids gave a great effort, we just didn't have enough in the tank to get it done."
With junior standout Andee Ritter lost for the season with an ACL injury suffered in January, South Medford (26-4) revamped its playing style and, at the state tournament, found it necessary to tighten its rotation. The Panthers utilized only six players on Saturday, and the up-and-down style favored by both teams appeared to take its toll toward the end of the third quarter.
"They're a great team keeping up the tempo the whole game," said Bolston, who had already been battling a stomach virus this week in Portland. "We like to run and gun and they like to run and gun. It was obviously a fast-tempo game the whole time so everybody's going to get tired after a while."
The difference in the game likely came with two minutes to go in the third quarter when South Medford junior Keyari Sleezer picked up her third and fourth fouls at the offensive end on back-to-back possessions.
Needing to preserve one of the team's top weapons on both ends of the floor, Cole was forced to sit Sleezer with his team up 42-36. By the time she returned, Oregon City (22-6) had gained a 48-42 lead and all the momentum by scoring on five straight possessions, started by a step-back 3-pointer from Cierra Walker and capped by a driving basket by Toria Bradford.
"I thought we had a comfortable enough lead and that we could withstand that but we didn't do a very good job on her assignment," Cole said of sitting Sleezer. "We did not cover the basket very well. We got beat to the bucket three consecutive times and we gave up some poor adjustments on high screens where they converted 3s and it changed the momentum pretty quickly. That's a credit to the kind of style of basketball they play, and a credit goes to Oregon City, they made the big shots, they really did."
Sleezer, who finished with a game-high 20 points, returned to snap the drought with a pull-up jumper but the damage had already been done. By that time, Oregon City was brimming with confidence and could sense an impending title.
"Just knowing that we were getting good shots earlier was big," said Oregon City head coach Kurt Guelsdorf, "because if you get those good shots, they're going to start falling for us. They'd fallen for us all year, it was just a matter of believing that the next one was going to go in. (In the second half) they started going in, the speed was our way, they got worn down and we had better legs in the fourth quarter, and that's how we got it done."
The numbers certainly told that story, with South Medford shooting 48 percent in the first half (14-for-29) but only 7-for-27 in the second half (26 percent) while Oregon City went from 33-percent success (10-for-30) in the first half to 11-for-15 shooting (73 percent) in the final 16 minutes.
Bolston finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to go with seven turnovers before fouling out with 18 seconds to go, while Julissa Tago was steady throughout with 10 points, four rebounds and three steals in 32 minutes. Both players were first-team all-tournament selections, with Bolston joining Westview's Jaime Nared as the only unanimous picks.
Also making it on the all-tournament first team were Oregon City's Walker, who had 13 points, and Jessica Gertz, who had 12 of her 17 in the second half.
"Just getting back here with my team that I grew up with means the world to me," Bolston said. "I'm happy we were able to do that."
Bolston said she had no answer for why everything seemed to fritter away from the Panthers in the finals but admitted that once Oregon City gained momentum, it was difficult to stem the tide.
Cole said it was just a matter of the Pioneers' solid play and his team's inability to counter.
"I think we were forcing some things a little bit in the fourth quarter," said Cole, "and hoping that our athleticism and our length and our aggressiveness to the basket was going to allow us to get some fouls called in the paint, and it didn't. We didn't get any and we didn't convert any. That sort of created a spiral around the energy and the momentum of the team and, unfortunately, we just started to unwind."
Sophomore post Jasmin Falls pulled down 12 rebounds to go with four points, while freshman Lauren Orndoff had three points and three steals. Junior Krystal Williams was the only other Panther to take the court, as in Wednesday's quarterfinals, and played 16 minutes over three games.
Second-team all-tournament honors went to Oregon City's Bradford, who had 10 points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals in the finals, and South Salem's Jordan Woodvine and Katie McWilliams, Beaverton's Kiki Stoll and Tigard's Lexi Carter.
OREGON CITY (22-6)
Jessica Gertz 5-10 4-4 17, Cierra Walker 4-11 2-4 13, Taylor Shaw 4-5 2-2 10, Toria Bradford 5-8 0-1 10, N'Dea Flye 2-5 0-0 4, Alyssa Durr 1-4 0-0 3, Katie Kammerer 0-2 0-0 0, Jordan Kelly 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-45 8-11 57.
SOUTH MEDFORD (26-4)
Keyari Sleezer 8-19 0-1 20, Ashley Bolston 5-14 1-1 11, Julissa Tago 5-11 0-0 10, Jasmin Falls 2-6 0-1 4, Lauren Orndoff 1-6 0-0 3, Krystal Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-56 1-3 48.
Oregon City 12 14 13 18 — 57
South Medford 14 19 9 6 — 48
3-point goals—Oregon City 7-13 (Jessica Gertz 3-8, Cierra Walker 3-3, Alyssa Durr 1-1, N'Dea Flye 0-1), South Medford 5-11 (Keyari Sleezer 4-7, Lauren Orndoff 1-2, Julissa Tago 0-1, Ashley Bolston 0-1). Fouled out—Ashley Bolston. Rebounds—Oregon City 28 (Taylor Shaw 10), South Medford 29 (Jasmin Falls 12). Assists—Oregon City 11 (Toria Bradford 3, Jessica Gertz 3, Cierra Walker 3), South Medford 8 (Ashley Bolston 7). Total fouls—Oregon City 9, South Medford 13.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry