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After his team played on Friday, South Medford head girls basketball coach Tom Cole shared stories of the Panthers’ recent travels with fans who had stuck around in the bleachers.

The squad’s road trips to California were valuable and they were memorable, he said, but …

“That saying that there’s no place like home?” Cole said. “It’s true.”

Second-ranked South looked plenty comfortable as it downed Thurston, 83-31, in its home opener.

Pepperdine-bound Keyari Sleezer had 21 points, three assists and three rebounds for the Panthers (8-3, 2-0 SWC), who led 44-15 at halftime in the Southwest Conference tilt.

South didn’t have any nonconference home contests this season, instead playing its first five games of the year in California before taking on Mazama in Klamath Falls on Dec. 16. From there it was three more contests in The Golden State at the West Coast Jamboree and a road game at Sheldon.

The Panthers played some of the best teams in the nation during that stretch.

They will host six more contests before the playoffs.

“It was a little strange,” Sleezer said. “It is really weird that this is our first home game, but it definitely was nice to play some really good teams on the road.”

Junior Jasmin Falls recorded 19 points and 11 rebounds for her eighth straight double-double and Andee Ritter, who’s signed to play at UC Irvine, turned in a season-high 17 points and four steals against the Colts (6-5, 0-2).

Junior Julissa Tago submitted 11 points, 10 assists (several of spectacular nature), four rebounds and three steals.

South, which finished with 25 assists and 17 steals, had an 18-0 run in the first quarter and a 17-0 run in the second.

Ritter helped the Panthers further pull away with a hot stretch in the second quarter. She scored 10 straight points with back-to-back triples and consecutive layups on steals. At that point South led, 39-13.

The Panthers owned a 70-23 advantage heading into the fourth.

Falls dominated in the paint.

“I think it was just getting a lot more physical,” she said. “I tried getting a lot tougher down low and just calling for the ball and asserting myself and having a presence.”

Meanwhile, the shots were dropping in left and right from her teammates. The Panthers knocked down eight of their 14 3-point attempts, with Sleezer canning 5 of 6 and Ritter knocking down three more.

“Even before the game, Tom was talking about since they are shorter than us they pack more toward the middle, so that definitely left more shots open for me and Andee,” Sleezer said.

Plenty more buckets came in transition.

Emily Lemons chipped in six points, four assists and three rebounds off the bench and Hannah Washington had five points, six rebounds and three steals.

“It was good to be back home here and I thought our kids responded collectively,” Cole said. “I thought we got quality minutes from our entire team tonight and that’s all part of this journey of deepening our bench.”

Allison Rich led Thurston with 12 points.

“They are really athletic and they really get after you and pressure you,” Thurston head coach Derek Duman said of South. “It’s tough. We’ve tried the last couple days to simulate that in practice, but I don’t have anybody who is 6-foot and has long arms and they seem to have a whole team of those kids.”

THURSTON (31) — Aldrich 2, Gallup 0, Gilbert 6, Hunter 0, Keefauver 2, Minium 0, Ray 0, Regas 9, Rich 12, Stedman 0. Totals: 14 3-7 31.

SOUTH MEDFOR D (83) — Williams 0, Tago 11, Johnson 0, Ritter 17, K. Ritter 4, Sleezer 21, Lemons 6, Falls 19, Washington 5. Totals: 33 9-13 83.

Thurston;7;8;8;8;--;31

South Medford;20;24;26;13;--;83

3-point goals — South Medford 8 (Sleezer 5, A. Ritter 3).

JV result — South Medford won.

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Keyari Sleezer of the Panthers shoots over the Thurston defense for two points in the first half Friday. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON
South Medford's Krystal Williams, right, takes the ball away from Thurston's Kassady Aldrich in the second quarter. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON