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Something to Prove

The venue may have changed but Keyari Sleezer’s attachment to the state tournament setting certainly hasn’t.

Sleezer is making her fourth straight trip to the Class 6A state tournament today and it was one year ago in Portland, albeit at the Moda Center, that she burst on the scene for South Medford’s girls basketball team as a player to be reckoned with.

Sleezer had already built a solid junior resume when she took to the biggest stage last year but really showed her value in helping lead the Panthers to their third straight championship final. She averaged 15 points, committed only six turnovers and generally was a steadying influence all tournament for South Medford, which finished as state runner-up for the second straight year after winning it all in 2012.

“It was definitely a huge breakout for me as a player there last year,” says Sleezer, 17. “Last year was definitely fun until the end. We should’ve won it but it got away from us.”

Sleezer and company will look for even bigger and better this year as No. 1 South Medford (23-4) opens the state tournament at the Chiles Center at 1:30 p.m. today against Southwest Conference rival Roseburg (19-7).

Sleezer is averaging 18 points, five rebounds and four assists for a Panther team that will have to make do for a second straight year without fellow senior Andee Ritter, whose meniscus tear a few weeks ago will keep her sidelined one year after ACL surgery also pushed her to the bench.

“Not having Andee out there hurts us but we definitely have the capability to win it all,” says Sleezer, a 4.0 student who has signed to play with Pepperdine and plans to major in biology and get into the school’s pre-med program. “We push ourselves hard and we’ve been working on it so that everybody’s ready to come into the games and play hard the whole time.”

The 5-foot-11, 145-pounder was at the forefront with returning juniors Julissa Tago and Jasmin Falls in providing much-needed energy during last year’s state tournament, but somehow didn’t find her name on either the first- or second-team all-tournament list when all was said and done. She’d like to rectify that oversight this year, but not at the expense of a greater goal.

“I felt like I worked hard for that last year and definitely going into my senior year I’m ready to play just as hard or harder to be considered for one of those teams,” she says. “But if I don’t make it and we win a state championship, that would be 10 times better. That’s all I really want.”

Count South Medford head coach Tom Cole among those in Sleezer’s corner, and he’s just as excited to see how she can build on last year’s tournament effort.

“There’s no doubt for us in the state tournament last year who was our MVP,” says Cole, who also noted the work of graduated senior Ashley Bolston. “She had two of the three MVP games for us and in the championship game, Keyari’s steadiness and consistency was really what kept us in the game. On the other side of it, when she got into foul trouble late in the third quarter, we didn’t have the depth to offset that and were never able to recapture the momentum.”

Sleezer scored a game-high 20 points in the title game versus Oregon City on 8-for-19 shooting but was lost for a key stretch when she was tagged with her third and fourth fouls on back-to-back offensive possessions with two minutes to play in the third quarter. She exited with the Panthers holding a six-point lead and returned in the fourth with the Pioneers up by six and holding all the momentum.

Sleezer’s ability to stay on the court to direct South Medford’s attack — she has transitioned to point guard over the last year — will again be vital.

“She has been steady all year long and she’s just almost methodical in her approach,” says Cole. “There have been games that certainly have been better than others but her consistency over the course of the year has been a real critical part of our success.”

The ability to step up in the biggest games has been a unique feature for Sleezer and one that she can’t entirely explain beyond simply bumping up her effort level.

“Personally I think I play way better when we’re playing tough competition,” she says. “I tend to kind of play down, which I shouldn’t, when we play lower competition. I think those big games just bring out big games for me, personally, and for the team as well. I think we all come out and play a lot harder and more physical, and that’s good for us.”

Helping South Medford hopefully rise to the occasion will be Tago, the SWC’s player of the year after averaging 18 points, four rebounds and five assists, and Falls, who is averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds as the Panthers unsung hero underneath.

Lauren Orndoff was South Medford’s leading scorer earlier this season before suffering an ankle injury. She’s averaging 10 points, three rebounds and two assists and is complemented by fellow sophomore Hannah Washington (six points, eight rebounds) and senior reserves Krystal Williams and Emily Lemons.

Even with the state’s top ranking in the 6A media poll and streak of championship finals heading in, the statewide buzz surrounding the Panthers hasn’t been as high as usual entering the state tourney. Second-ranked South Salem and No. 3 Oregon City, which was upset by Southridge in the second round, were the headline leaders early on.

“It’s definitely not been as much of a presence as we would think we would have being No. 1 in the state,” says Sleezer, “but I think everyone still knows that we’re No. 1 and steps up whenever we’re going to play them. We just have to watch out for that because everyone’s always trying to take out No. 1, for sure.”

If anyone is familiar with that recipe for success it should be Roseburg, which played the Panthers well before ultimately falling 59-41 and 63-51 during the SWC slate. The Indians are led by 6-3 post Jordan Stotler, who was a first-team all-SWC choice, and seniors Ashley Backen (5-7) and Meg Jackson (5-9).

“Honestly it’s one of the worst matchups for us because you are so familiar with that team,” says Cole. “(Roseburg’s) a team that has provided quite a challenge for us. We’ve been fortunate enough to win both those games but in both of those games they were never games that were out of reach.”

In today’s other quarterfinals, South Salem plays fourth-ranked Jesuit at 3:15 p.m., No. 7 Sheldon faces No. 6 Beaverton at 6:30 and Southridge closes the day against No. 5 St. Mary’s Academy at 8:15.

Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@mailtribune.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

South Medford senior guard Keyari Sleezer has plenty of experience at the state tournament, and she seems to deliver her best on the biggest stage. PHOTO BY ANDY ATKINSON