Rising to the Challenge
Fifty-seven seconds into Tuesday's much-anticipated rubber match between No. 3 South Medford and No. 4 North Medford, Panther players E.J. Singler and Michael Harthun hit the floor in pursuit of a loose ball that also sent Tornado players Jordan Ellis and Matt Maurer sailing after it.
If the message wasn't clear before tipoff, it certainly was after the pileup: This was going to be no ordinary boys basketball game.
"That just showed that both teams were going to go toe-to-toe and not give an inch," said Harthun of the play. "Everybody was going to end up on the floor tonight and leave everything they had on the floor."
In the end, South Medford was the team left standing alone atop the Southwest Conference thanks to the gritty play of Harthun and his supporting cast.
The 6-foot-3 senior point guard totaled 13 of his game-high 28 points in the fourth quarter, shrugging off a bloodied and half-open left eye to carry his Panthers to an 80-62 triumph that clinched the best-of-three series against the rival Black Tornado.
"We knew coming in it was going to be a playoff atmosphere, and that's exactly what it was," said Harthun, who was 11 of 18 from the field with four 3-pointers. "It was a battle, a war ... and I think we just outplayed them tonight. We wanted it more than they did and proved it."
The win was South Medford's 18th in the last 19 games against North Medford, and gives the Panthers (18-3, 10-1 SWC) a one-game lead over the Tornado (16-5, 9-2) in the SWC standings with four games to go.
"We need to use this as a springboard and not have a letdown in the next four games," added Harthun.
Playing in front of a capacity crowd at South Medford High, there was no chance either team was going to suffer a letdown on Tuesday.
The upstart Black Tornado came out eager to make a statement about the new leader in Medford basketball, but the Panthers were willing to concede nothing.
South Medford led 15-13 with two minutes to play in the first quarter before closing the period with a 7-2 run. The teams then traded baskets like championship boxers might trade jabs to open the second quarter until the Panthers went on one of their patented runs — outscoring North 8-0 over the final 3:40 of the period to take a 42-28 lead into halftime.
Hindering the Tornado's cause was an injury sustained by Ellis during that opening-minute collision. The junior standout remained in the game and tried to play through the pain, but sat out the entire second half as a precautionary measure. Ellis said after the game he was unable to lift his left arm and was concerned he may have suffered a separated shoulder. There was no further word on the severity of Ellis' injury as of press time.
South built its lead to 19 points early in the third and led by 16 points when another multi-player pileup on the floor left Harthun with a gash on his left eyelid. While Harthun was on the sidelines receiving medical attention, North Medford seized its opportunity and cut its deficit to 10 points with 1:45 to go in the third.
"When I got taken out I wasn't worried about my eye, I was just wanting to get back into the game," said Harthun, who also pulled down a career-high seven rebounds to complement four assists. "I was definitely looking at the scoreboard with one eye the whole time hoping that we wouldn't let them come back into the game."
The Black Tornado had three more chances to narrow the gap to single digits but couldn't capitalize. Harthun then returned after a 21/2-minute absence to help steady the ship for the Panthers, who managed a 58-46 lead by the end of the quarter.
Key to staving off an even bigger rally by North Medford was the play of E.J. Singler, Cody Walport and Griff Boyd, who each added inside baskets to deny a comeback spearheaded by Tornado senior point guard Michael Williams.
"We tried to make a run when Mike was on the bench but I'll give a lot of credit to their second unit or whoever came in for him," said Williams, "they did a great job just keeping with us and not letting us catch up."
A 3-pointer by Danny Berger early in the fourth quarter trimmed North's deficit to 62-55, but Singler answered with a pair of free throws.
And after Tim Budavari-Jasper had scored on a turnaround jumper to make it 64-57, Harthun simply had had enough.
The senior called for the ball on the ensuing play and drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key, then called for it again moments later for another 3-pointer that allowed the Panther lead to balloon to 13 points.
South Medford's lead never dipped into single digits again, with the host team outscoring North 8-3 over the final two minutes for the final margin.
"They withstood our last blow and that's what good teams do," said Williams, who finished with eight points, three steals and four assists. "We couldn't come back from there."
E.J. Singler finished with yet another double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds to go with five assists, while Boyd was a key factor with 11 points, four steals and three assists and Zach Haveman added 12 points.
"Obviously Michael came up big in the fourth quarter for us, which we surely needed to happen," said South Medford coach Dennis Murphy. "I'm very proud of all our kids. It was everything we thought it would be. North brought their best effort, but to our kids' credit they matched it."
Berger led the way for North Medford by scoring 14 of his 20 points in the second half, while Josh Pecktol added 16 points and Ryan McLemore nine for a Tornado team that was done in by 3-for-15 shooting from 3-point range.
In contrast, South Medford was 7 of 7 from beyond the arc in the first half alone, and 9 of 11 for the game.
NORTH MEDFORD (62) — Berger 20, Pecktol 16, McLemore 9, Williams 8, Maurer 5, Budavari-Jasper 2, Waldron 2, Ellis 0, Barlow 0. Totals: 24-53 11-17 62.
SOUTH MEDFORD (80) — Harthun 28, E.J. Singler 15, Haveman 12, Boyd 11, M. Singler 6, Kezer 4, Walport 2, Aguirre 2. Totals: 29-47 13-19 80.
North Medford 15 13 18 16 — 62
South Medford 22 20 16 22 — 80
3-point goals — North Medford 3-15 (Berger 2, Maurer 1), South Medford 9-11 (Harthun 4, Boyd 2, Haveman 2, E.J. Singler 1). Fouled out — E.J. Singler, Berger.
JV score — South Medford 59, North Medford 44.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 776-4488, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org