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South girls prepare for tough test at 6A state

Hanna Curtius has been inside the Rose Garden, but only as a spectator.

The South Medford senior guard watched the Trail Blazers play the Phoenix Suns last year with a few teammates. Afterward, she received the opportunity to meet center Greg Oden on the court.

"I never actually pictured myself playing there, but I was like, 'How cool would it be to play on this floor?'" Curtius said.

She and the eighth-ranked Panthers will find out when they face second-ranked Jesuit on Portland's grandest stage Thursday.

South clinched the Class 6A state quarterfinal berth by defeating Glencoe 74-60 in the second round on Saturday. The young Panthers are now preparing to play a powerful Crusader squad at an NBA arena built to accommodate more than 20,000 spectators.

South head coach Tom Cole said simply getting comfortable inside the Rose Garden will be crucial. His team's 1:30 p.m. contest kicks off the girls tourney.

"It is one of the variables that will be hardest to overcome," Cole said. "Being on a court where right above you is a huge Jumbotron, and it's just a different. It's an NBA coliseum. We know there will be an awe factor, and we are trying to prepare them for that as best we can because it is intimidating. But, you know, we got here for a reason, and we can't forget what led us here and we can't abandon that because of the factor of fear."

Solving Jesuit will be another task. The Crusaders, a veteran group of dangerous shooters and outstanding athletes, are led by 6-foot-2 senior Elizabeth Brenner.

Brenner has been named to all-state teams at least once in volleyball, basketball, softball and track. The 11-time world champion in racquetball has verbally committed to play volleyball at the University of Oregon.

"Probably the single greatest female athlete to ever come out of Oregon," Cole said of Brenner. "She'll be a chore for us, but their guards are incredible too."

The Panthers, who had not advanced to the state tourney since 2002, fell to Jesuit 48-29 in the championship game of the West Linn Tip-Off Classic on Dec. 4. Cole said his squad recorded one of its worst shooting performances of the year and turned the ball over often against the Crusaders, who have lost to Southridge in the state championship game twice in the last four seasons.

"We were still trying to figure out who we were and what we were capable of," Cole said of the early season defeat.

South's other losses this year came against Class 5A Springfield (24-2) and Thurston (20-7), along with out-of-state powers St. Mary's (Arizona) and Evergreen (Washington).

Jesuit's lone loss was to Westview (a 60-54 defeat) on Feb. 2. But the Crusaders (24-1) won the Metro League and finished first in the Oregon School Activities Association power rankings.

Jesuit head coach Jason Lowery told The Oregonian that the Wildcats were disruptive defensively, handled his team's pressure defense and shot well. Westview's 1-2-2 zone defense proved effective that night, limiting Brenner to 12 points.

South (21-5) has had enormous success with a lineup that's still developing. Three sophomores start (Kylie Towry, Yaremi Mejia and Luisa Tago), along with 6-foot-5 junior post Tess Picknell — the Southern Oregon Hybrid player of the year — and Curtius. Junior Lupita Vargas and Ashley Bolston, who is just a freshman, have also made significant contributions for the SOH champion Panthers, who have won 16 straight.

"From December to now, we are a totally different team," Curtius said. "I wouldn't underestimate us and I wouldn't underestimate Jesuit. But I think we are ready to go and we've been waiting for this. This is the next goal."

Tago said establishing Picknell early and simply hitting open shots will be two goals against Jesuit.

"We will have to get out on shooters to be effective and we need to minus the turnovers," Tago said. "If we create penetration, it will leave shooters open, so that will help us out."

The winner of the contest will take on the winner of the Oregon City-Tigard game in the semifinals at 1:30 p.m. on Friday.

Tago and Curtius both agreed that regardless of any outcomes, the opportunity to play inside an NBA arena should be a special one.

"I'm so excited," Curtius said. "It is a big accomplishment. We deserve every second that we are up there because the girls work hard every day."

Reach reporter Dan Jones at 541-776-4499, or e-mail djones@mailtribune.com