PORTLAND — Pivotal moments seemed to highlight South Medford's games all season, but the Panthers found themselves on the wrong end of such a moment during Saturday's Class 6A girls basketball state championship.
In what was shaping up as a top-rate battle between top-ranked Central Catholic and No. 2 South Medford, the fortunes changed dramatically for the Panthers only two minutes into the second quarter. That's when senior point guard Yaremi Mejia, tabbed as the heart and soul of her team by head coach Tom Cole, was called for her third foul after knocking the ball loose from Rams standout Kailee Johnson on a curl in the paint.
With Mejia on the sidelines, Central Catholic took full advantage by using a quick 9-0 run to break a 19-all tie and take control of the ever-important momentum at the Rose Garden. The Panthers could never regain the magic that helped them open a 10-3 lead and ultimately fell short of their final goal when the Rams won going away, 57-36, to avenge last year's semifinals loss to South Medford.
En route to the title, Central Catholic (26-3) ousted the Nos. 2, 3 and 4 teams in the state to earn the program's first state title.
Panthers junior Ashley Bolston led her team with 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go with three rebounds and two blocks, while Mejia finished with six points, five assists, two steals and two rebounds in only 19 minutes.
"I thought momentum in the first half was so important in a game like this," said Cole, whose team was looking to defend its 6A state title. "It doesn't take much to disrupt it but it takes a lot to create it. Losing Yaremi to foul trouble just forced us to be out of sync. We threw some turnovers right after that were really unnecessary and I don't know that we would've done that with her in the game."
Foul troubles also befell South Medford sophomore Andee Ritter, who was tagged with her third with two minutes to go in the first half. Both Ritter and Mejia spearheaded the Panthers' prolific full-court press all season and were key distributors of the basketball, and the second half became an uncomfortable game of chess for Cole.
"We just never could capture the same kind of rhythm once it was disrupted," said Cole. "We were always playing this game of chance on whether or not we should leave (Mejia) in. I just think the intensity level on defense and what she was creating on offense just changed."
Central Catholic head coach Sandy Dickerson noticed the difference as well.
"That was huge, that was big," said Dickerson. "When both Mejia and Ritter were in foul trouble, that was the turning point in the game really."
The trickle-down effect also paid off for the 6-foot-3 Johnson, who was instrumental in helping the Rams close their first-quarter deficit to 17-14 and blow the game open late in the third quarter. Johnson was only 3-for-18 last year in her head-to-head matchup with future Stanford teammate Tess Picknell, but without a 6-5 obstacle to overcome she finished with 22 points on 9-for-18 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds.
"Both teams came out wanting it," said Bolston, her team's tallest defender at 6-1. "We all knew how they played and how they were coming out, they just came back a little tougher from last year. Us losing Tess was a big factor with Kailee down there."
Added Cole: "As we got into foul trouble and our defensive rotations changed, it was very difficult to get the communication necessary to double on Kailee, and then single-coverage she just punished us on the boards. She got a couple second-chance opportunities in the first half that I thought really changed some momentum for them."
While having to deal with foul trouble to leading players was a problem, it wasn't the Panthers' only issue Saturday.
South Medford (24-5) converted only 36 percent of its shots (15-for-42) after going 2-for-14 from 3-point range (14 percent), and was only 4-for-11 from the foul line (36 percent). The Rams clearly won the battle of the boards, 35-21, and went 22-for-47 (47 percent) from the field to answer any challenge.
"A lot of credit goes to Central Catholic," said Cole. "They're an excellent team and deserving state champions. They played hard and are very talented and we got beat tonight."
Senior point guard Jordan Reynolds, who has signed with Tennessee, joined Johnson in having a big turnaround from last year's meeting. Reynolds was 5-for-16 from the field one year ago but stepped up her play to finish with 15 points on 6-for-11 shooting to go with 13 rebounds, five assists, five steals and two blocks.
Reynolds, who won a state title with 5A Jefferson prior to transferring to Central Catholic in 2011, said the memory of last year's 62-45 loss to South Medford helped drive the Rams to a better showing in 2013.
"It meant a lot for all of our seniors, especially the ones that didn't get a state championship last year," the 5-10 point guard said of Saturday's finals. "We had a goal and we wanted a state title. The other games were to get to the state title, this was it. We didn't come here for nothing."
Bolston did her best to keep the Panthers within reach of the Rams in her best effort of the tournament, but South Medford was never really able to string any runs together after its first-quarter surge. It didn't help that usually reliable shooters Kylie Towry, Luisa Tago and Julissa Tago were each 1-for-7 from the field.
"My shots weren't falling in the other games," said Bolston, the Washington State commit, "but I just kept shooting it this game and they started falling, and my drives were going so I felt better about it."
For their overall efforts, which marked the second-best showing in program history, South Medford earned the tournament's sportsmanship trophy to go with individual all-tournament recognition for Towry (first team), Mejia (second team) and Bolston (second team).
"Our heads are down over a loss but I saw some kids tonight who competed to the very end and I know our younger kids are going to respond to the challenge," said Cole. "We'll be back here, I know that."
"The hardest part for us is, on one hand, you're extremely proud as you watch these kids here get introduced for the all-tournament team," he added. "But on the other hand, it's been an incredible four years with these seniors (Mejia, Towry, Luisa Tago) and to have that come to an end now, that's probably the piece that hurts the most."
CENTRAL CATHOLIC (25-4)
Johnson 9-18 4-7 22, Reynolds 6-11 3-4 15, Hood 4-5 1-2 9, Cichoke 2-2 0-1 5, Kotzian-Upshaw 0-9 3-4 3, Hale 1-1 1-2 3, Hallinan 0-0 0-0 0, Nizich 0-0 0-0 0, Henderson 0-0 0-0 0, Galluzzo 0-0 0-0 0, Logan 0-0 0-0 0, Criswell 0-0 0-0 0, Westby 0-0 0-0 0, Abraham 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 22-46 12-20 57.
SOUTH MEDFORD (25-5)
Bolston 7-10 2-6 18, Mejia 3-6 0-0 6, Ritter 2-4 0-0 4, J. Tago 1-7 2-5 4, L. Tago 1-7 0-0 2, Towry 1-7 0-0 2, Cox 0-0 0-0 0, Falls 0-0 0-0 0, Sleezer 0-1 0-0 0, Williams 0-0 0-0 0. Totals: 15-42 4-11 36.
Central Catholic 14 17 15 11 — 57
South Medford 17 5 7 7 — 36
3-point goals—Central Catholic 1-6 (Cichoke 1-1, Reynolds 0-2, Kotzian-Upshaw 0-3), South Medford 2-14 (Bolston 2-2, Ritter 0-1, J. Tago 0-2; L. Tago 0-3, Towry 0-5, Sleezer 0-1). Fouled out—Ritter. Rebounds—Central Catholic 35 (Reynolds 13), South Medford 21 (L. Tago 5). Assists—Central Catholic 8 (Reynolds 5), South Medford 8 (Mejia 5). Total fouls—Central Catholic 14, South Medford 17.
ODS Player of the Game — Kailee Johnson, Central Catholic
ODS Player of the Game — Ashley Bolston, South Medford
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry