Winning conference championships never gets old for the South Medford boys basketball team, but they sure have come easier.

Winning conference championships never gets old for the South Medford boys basketball team, but they sure have come easier.

Left as an afterthought in the Southwest Conference race after a 3-3 start, the third-ranked Panthers roared back and finished their improbable run with a hard-fought 58-49 victory over No. 6 Sheldon on Thursday night.

The win, South Medford's second over the Irish in three tries, allowed the Panthers to claim at least a share of their eighth straight conference championship and earn the SWC's No. 1 seed to the state playoffs.

E.J. Singler had 20 points and 17 rebounds to lead South Medford, while cousin Mitch Singler added 15 points and Cy Dellenback-Ouellette scored 10 points. In all, the Panthers' seniors combined for 47 of the team's 58 points.

"We never gave up on one another and just kept battling," said South Medford coach Dennis Murphy, whose team won eight of its final nine SWC contests.

The Panthers (18-6, 11-4 SWC) will open the Class 6A state playoffs at home on Tuesday against David Douglas, the Mount Hood League's No. 4 seed.

Sheldon (18-6, 11-4) held a one-game lead on the Panthers entering Thursday's game but was left to settle for a share of the title and the SWC's No. 2 seed. The Irish will play host to Clackamas, the Three Rivers League No. 4 seed, in Tuesday's opening round.

"We put ourselves in a tough situation trying to get a No. 1 seed down here, but we'll be all right for next week," said Sheldon coach Ron Lampe.

The Irish stormed out to an 11-2 lead through three minutes of play, causing Murphy to call a timeout and challenge his players to turn the game around. They responded with a blitz of baskets and one-and-done defensive stops to close out the quarter on a 14-0 run.

"It was just all about stops," said Lampe. "We stopped them the first six out of seven possessions and we're up 11-2. We don't stop them the next one out of eight and they go for 14 straight."

E.J. Singler had six of those points and Josh Havird had four of his eight points overall during the momentum-changing run. Mike Brassel drained a 3-pointer to open the second quarter and extend the surge to 17 straight points.

A 10-2 run by Sheldon closed out the second quarter and cut South's lead to two points at intermission, but the Panthers got a pair of key 3-pointers from Dellenback-Ouellette in the third quarter to build their cushion back up to nine points heading into the fourth.

After that lead dropped to six points, Mitch Singler came off the bench with his four fouls and made an instant impact with a strong drive to the basket for two points and a pull-up jumper on South's next possession to push the cushion back up to 46-36 with 4:04 to play.

"It's always hard playing in foul trouble because you kinda get off your rhythm," said the 6-foot-3 senior, "but this game was important to us so you have to have the right mind set even if you're in trouble. This was just one of those nights where it's senior night and for the SWC championship, so you just dig deep and do whatever you can to have that banner hanging up again."

That attitude typified the Panthers' next defensive stand, with E.J. Singler deflecting an entry pass by Tyler Reynolds and then diving to tip the loose ball past Reynold's outstretched hands. Not done, Havird got in on the act with a dive of his own to tip the ball ahead of another charging Sheldon player and then had the presence of mind to hustle back to his feet and save the ball to Dellenback-Ouellette before tumbling out of bounds.

With a mass of players now converging on the action, Dellenback-Ouellette took the ball to the basket, drew a foul and — amid a thunderous roar of appreciation from the Panther faithful — calmly knocked down a pair of free throws.

"I think the epitome of what we're really about was our play where those guys dive on the floor," said Murphy. "It starts back at 60 feet and we end up getting a foul and two points. That to me is what South Medford basketball is about. Just that toughness and willingness to play hard."

The Irish, again, tried to cut into the Panther lead but South Medford made 8 of 9 free throws at one point to deny a comeback.

"This was one of our goals to get eight straight (league titles) and we accomplished that because we came out and played as a team and had fun with it tonight," said E.J. Singler, who also had three assists and two blocked shots. "We were getting on the floor and getting the fans into it and playing good defense. It was just a very passionate, fun game to play in."

Billy Pinz scored 15 of his 20 points in the first half for the Irish. The team's second-leading scorer, Reynolds, was held scoreless until the final 21/2 minutes and finished with six points — seven below his average.

SHELDON (49) — Pinz 20, Reynolds 6, Good 6, Wellman 6, Higgins 5, Davis 4, Radke 2, Stringfield 0. Totals: 17-49 11-16 49.

SOUTH MEDFORD (58) — E.J. Singler 20, M. Singler 15, Dellenback-Ouellette 10, Havird 8, Brassel 3, McLaughlin 2, Petersen 0, Mercer 0, Pratt 0, Wallan 0. Totals: 21-47 12-16 58.

Sheldon 11 17 5 16 — 49

South Medford 16 14 12 16 — 58

3-point goals — Sheldon 4-17 (Pinz 3, Reynolds 1), South Medford 4-12 (Dellenback-Ouellette 2, Brassel 1, E.J. Singler 1). Fouled out — Davis.

JV score — South Medford 52, Sheldon 33.

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