It wasn't always pretty, but Friday's boys basketball game between top-ranked South Medford and No. 3 Sunset was everything a fan could hope for ... and maybe more.

It wasn't always pretty, but Friday's boys basketball game between top-ranked South Medford and No. 3 Sunset was everything a fan could hope for ... and maybe more.

Even though the calendar still says December, the game was played with an atmosphere and intensity usually reserved for the state playoffs.

In the end, though, Sunset's hopes for an upset resembled the Apollos' last-second 3-pointer: On line but just short.

Senior point guard Michael Harthun and junior post E.J. Singler each scored 19 points as the Panthers held off the Garrett Sim-led Apollos, 62-59, in front of a packed house at South Medford High.

"It wasn't the prettiest game maybe to watch with all the scratching and clawing, kinda like a state playoff game, but this was a huge steppingstone for our team," said Harthun, who also had five rebounds and two assists.

"We were just doing everything we could to be up by one or two points by the buzzer, and that's what we did," he added. "The main thing was to get the win, it didn't matter how."

In reality, the "how" was maybe the most impressive part for the Panthers (6-0).

Mitch Singler and Conner Egan each stepped up with big performances late in the nip-and-tuck affair, and South Medford finally proved that the free-throw line can be an ally and not an adversary. The Panthers entered the game converting only 52 percent from the foul line, with a season-best game of 59 percent.

"We haven't been shooting free throws well throughout the first five games," said Harthun, "but everybody stepped up huge and hit big free throws down the stretch. I think that was probably the difference for us."

South Medford knocked down five of its final seven foul shots to stave off Sunset (7-2) in the game's final 71 seconds and made 11 of 16 overall. E.J. Singler twice connected on both ends of one-and-one situations, while Mitch Singler was 1-for-2 with 13.3 seconds to play to give the Panthers a 62-56 bulge.

Sim nearly rescued his team, draining a 3-pointer with 6.5 seconds to play and then helping a defensive effort that forced a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds.

Given a chance to tie the game, Sunset had its inbounds pass sail all the way past half court before Michael Holton tracked it down and quickly shuffled the ball to Sim. The 6-foot-1 senior, who has signed to play next year at the California, quickly dribbled up the court and went up for a last-second 3-pointer that was disrupted by E.J. Singler.

"I thought I got a good look," said Sim, "but E.J. contested it well and I just came up short."

Sim led Sunset with 22 points on 9-for-21 shooting and also doled out five assists with two rebounds.

Sunset's biggest lead came out of the gate when it led 6-2, but South Medford quickly recovered and never trailed after Harthun drained a 3-pointer with 4:27 to go in the first quarter. The Apollos were twice able to tie the game inside the final two minutes of the first half and pulled even again with 6:33 to go in the contest but never could take the lead.

"They're a very good basketball team ... as good of a basketball team as we've played," South Medford coach Dennis Murphy said of Sunset. "But that's the reason why you schedule games like this, because those are the kind of teams that you have to compete with in March."

"It's really about a measurement and where are you at this point in the season," added Murphy. "Obviously there's a number of things we need to work on, but they're a very well-coached team that plays hard. The majority of our kids have not been in these kind of games before, so this was a whole new experience for them."

Which is exactly why the effort put forth by Mitch Singler and Egan proved instrumental down the stretch.

Mitch Singler hit a big 3-pointer after Sunset had crept within one point midway through the third quarter, and dropped in a couple rebound baskets to keep the pressure on the Apollos. The 6-3 junior finished with a season-high 16 points with three rebounds and three assists, while also applying as much pressure to the quick-footed Sim as possible.

"Mitch really did a super job," said Murphy, who challenged the wing to step up his play prior to Friday's game. "I think he made Garrett work for everything he got. It was kind of a coming out game for Mitch, I thought. It's kind of where he ended the season a year ago."

Egan didn't have the same affect on the scoreboard for South, totaling just four points, but the 6-4 senior pulled down seven rebounds and held his ground well defensively against the bigger Apollos.

"In every game we need someone else to step up," said E.J. Singler, "and this was a game where Mitch and Conner shined. Conner played strong down under the hoop with his rebounds and just scrapping underneath, and Mitch played very strong for us, too."

E.J. Singler was no slouch himself, with the 6-6 junior pulling down 11 rebounds to go with two blocks and two assists. He was 6-for-7 from the field and 7-for-7 from the foul line.

E.J. Singler also proved vital in helping the Panthers break Sunset's full-court pressure, often bringing the ball up himself much like older brother Kyle Singler did for South last season.

"He was pretty much an X-factor in the game," said Harthun. "They put two guys on me to where I couldn't really get the ball so E.J. stepped up huge and brought the ball up pretty much the whole game and took a lot of pressure off me."

Harthun took an elbow to the face in the first quarter and admitted to being a little dizzy after that for the duration of the game. He was 7-for-18 from the field.

"I was a little loopy after that but my shot wasn't falling before that anyway so it was all good," he said.

And all good for the Apollos as well, with Sim hoping his team can use such an effort as a springboard for the rest of their season.

"It was the kind of game that you want to have under your belt before you start league, it was a battle," he said. "This was all we could ask for, playing the No. 1 team in the state down in Medford in such a great atmosphere with all the fans here. This was a good test for us and now we know we can compete with anybody in the state."

SUNSET (59) — Sim 22, Campbell 13, Shepard 7, Parker 7, M. Holton 6, Wenzel 2, Bennett 2, T. Holton 0. Totals: 24-59 6-8 59.

SOUTH MEDFORD (62) — Harthun 19, E.J. Singler 19, M. Singler 16, Egan 4, Duran-Chaparro 2, Kezer 2, Boyd 0, Haveman 0. Totals: 24-49 11-16 62.

Sunset 17 14 10 18 — 59

South Medford 21 12 11 18 — 62

3-point goals — Sunset 5-16 (Sim 3, Parker 1, Shepard 1), South Medford 3-10 (Harthun 2, M. Singler 1). Fouled out — Campbell.

JV score — South Medford 61, Sunset 34.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail khenry@mailtribune.com