PORTLAND — That intangible factor that often turns the tide between winning and losing just wasn't on South Medford's side Saturday morning here at the Moda Center.
The Panthers staved off early injuries to a pair of team leaders and clawed back into the fourth-place final against Metro League champion Sunset before ultimately coming up short in a 50-44 loss to wrap up their run at the Class 6A boys basketball state tournament in sixth place.
"They really stayed true to their colors in who they are because we competed our ass off," said South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy. "I don't care what the sporting event is, you need a little bit of luck somewhere. I thought we dug hard and fought for it, we just could not get a bounce at any time when we needed it."
South Medford (21-8) trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half before making it a two-possession game early in the fourth quarter as juniors Cameron English and Brayden Massey put the team on their back during a rally that included a huge 3-pointer by senior C.J. Keepes.
Trailing 43-38 with five minutes to play, the Panthers had several scoring chances go by the wayside and could only manage one free throw over the next three minutes. At 43-39, Sunset (21-7) converted four straight free throws to regain a cushion it essentially maintained to close out the season finale for both teams.
"We had good momentum going into the fourth quarter but we just couldn't get it done," said English, who powered home 17 points to go with six rebounds, three blocks and two steals. "We fought throughout the game and tried to keep it in there close, we just couldn't finish."
The fact that the Panthers even had a chance to secure the fourth-place trophy rested largely on the shoulders of the 6-foot-7 English, who decidedly won the matchup with Metro League player of the year Tyler Gutierrez.
English finished 8-for-15 from the field with one assist in 24 minutes, while the 6-8 senior Gutierrez was 0-for-7 from the field and managed only two free throws with 1:48 to play. Gutierrez did have eight rebounds, three blocks and three steals but coughed up five of his team's 13 turnovers.
"Cameron English came up big," said Murphy, whose team earned its first state trophy since 2009. "We truly challenged him and he played the Gutierrez kid tough "» as tough as anybody. Especially in the second half, Cameron really took the ball right at him and I'm awfully proud of him."
The script to the first quarter of the game was straight out of a horror novel for the Panthers, unfortunately, as senior Mark Winans suffered a wrist injury 35 seconds into the contest and was forced to the sidelines. Winans, who nearly had a triple-double in Friday's win, briefly returned four minutes later but was grimacing in obvious pain despite having his wrist taped up and had to return to the sidelines for the duration of the game.
Massey was also lost to a knee injury midway through the first quarter but was able to tough it out and return in the final minute. Sunset was able to build a 10-2 lead during all the turmoil but senior Brandon Robertson joined English and senior Ben Orndoff in helping close the gap to 13-10 by the end of the quarter.
"When you lose your point guard and maybe your best player, it's a really tough mental thing to get over that, 'OK, what are we gonna do,' thing," said Keepes, who had five rebounds and three points. "It's different when they're just sitting on the bench and you know they're coming back but we had no idea, so that contributed to the slow start."
Despite so many things going against them, the Panthers cut it to a four-point game before Sunset closed the first half on a 4-0 run to lead 28-20 at the break. It seemed to go that way throughout for South Medford, which would move within a handful of points but simply couldn't make a play in shooting 17-for-58 (29 percent) for the contest.
"We could never quite get the momentum going," said Murphy. "You normally do that in just a little bit of a run and we maybe got four points in a row but I don't think we ever got more than that."
"They made shots when they needed to and we couldn't do that, or they got a stop and we couldn't," he added. "It was a good game and I'm proud of the kids, I'm just sorry it turned out the way it did. We just didn't score enough points."
A four-minute scoreless stretch in the third quarter hindered the Panthers' cause and allowed Sunset to build a 38-25 cushion with 1:50 to go in the frame. Baskets by English and Massey helped make it a 10-point game heading into the fourth, however, and a putback basket by English and 3-pointer by Keepes made it 39-34 with seven minutes to play.
"That's us, we're not going to give up," said Keepes. "If you're down 20 or 2 points, you still have to finish the game. We're at the state tournament and we got here because we play hard and we got here because we're one of the six best teams in the state now, so we were not going to give up. We'll never stop playing."
While the effort most certainly was there, the Apollos still managed to find a way to counter to close out the contest.
"Both teams wanted it, but we made enough plays with rebounding or tip-outs and little things that gave us a chance to win the game," said Sunset head coach Todd Sherwood, whose team eliminated the Panthers in last year's consolation semifinals.
Sunset got 16 points and six rebounds from Taylor Harris, 15 points and five rebounds from Jeff Bieber and 10 points and five boards from Mikey Fey — all seniors — to turn back the Panthers.
"I think our guys were focused and they wanted to make sure that we ended on the right note and really execute at the level necessary to beat a high-quality team like South Medford," added Sherwood.
Massey, who was named to the second-team all-tournament list, finished with 12 points, three assists, three rebounds and three steals after returning from injury but was 4-for-14 from the field. Robertson had six points and five rebounds after being handed more responsibility due to the injury issues.
"Having played almost every team in the Metro League now we can say that's probably the best team," Keepes said of Sunset. "They were tough and we're really proud that we were able to stick with them like we did. We really wish we could've beaten them and maybe, who knows, if they came to our place we could've gotten them but that's not how it works."
"We had a great year and were just that close," added the senior. "One more win would've been nice, but we'll take sixth in the state because that's still a tremendous accomplishment."
Taylor Harris 6-10 3-4 16, Jeff Bieber 5-8 5-5 15, Mikey Fey 5-7 0-1 10, Glenn Tanguy 0-1 2-3 2, Tyler Gutierrez 0-7 2-4 2, Bobby Rake 1-2 0-0 2, Josh Brown 1-3 0-0 2, Charles Wenzel 0-0 1-2 1, Reed Brown 0-0 0-0 0, Michael Kerns 0-2 0-2 0, Willy Pflug 0-4 0-0 0, Zach Niebergall 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 18-44 13-21 50.
SOUTH MEDFORD (21-8)
Cameron English 8-15 1-2 17, Brayden Massey 4-14 3-4 12, Brandon Robertson 1-7 4-6 6, CJ Keepes 1-3 0-0 3, Ben Orndoff 1-8 0-0 2, Hunter Bradford 1-4 0-0 2, Tristian Lallo 1-2 0-0 2, Trenton Monical 0-1 0-0 0, Mark Winans 0-1 0-0 0, Craig Contreras 0-1 0-0 0, Brandon Lupton 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 17-58 8-12 44.
Sunset 13 15 11 11 — 50
South Medford 10 10 9 15 — 44
3-point goals—Sunset 1-6 (Taylor Harris 1-3, Willy Pflug 0-3), South Medford 2-12 (CJ Keepes 1-1, Brayden Massey 1-5, Ben Orndoff 0-2, Brandon Lupton 0-2, Brandon Robertson 0-2). Rebounds—Sunset 36 (Tyler Gutierrez 8), South Medford 32 (Cameron English 6). Assists—Sunset 6 (Willy Pflug 2, Mikey Fey 2, Tyler Gutierrez 2), South Medford 6 (Brayden Massey 3). Total fouls—Sunset 16, South Medford 16.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry