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South fends off Colts

Being ranked No. 2 in the state in the latest Class 6A boys basketball media poll and tabbed as the preseason favorite in the Southwest Conference has its benefits, for sure.

One major drawback, however, is the target on your back and the added inspiration drawn by underdogs eager to knock you off your perch.

South Medford’s program has become pretty familiar with such status under the guidance of head coach Dennis Murphy, but, as the veteran coach said following Friday’s 60-46 SWC win over Thurston, “They’re not all going to be easy.”

The visiting Colts gave the Panthers a run for their money until a third-quarter flurry put South Medford (12-1, 2-0 SWC) in the driver’s seat to cap a busy stretch that has seen it play six games in 12 days.

“With the bull’s-eye on our back, we know we’re going to get everybody’s best effort,” said Murphy, in his 28th season guiding the Panthers. “We weren’t terrible, we were just kind of clunky and we didn’t ever get a real good flow going it didn’t seem like. But we’ve won eight quarters in a row, it’s tough to be disappointed in that.”

South Medford’s seniors came up big against the gritty, hungry Colts (5-7, 1-1) when the Panthers needed it most. Conor Carroll (14 points, four rebounds), Hunter Bradford (12 points, five rebounds, three steals), Eskari Carter (11 points, three rebounds, three steals), Josh Washington (nine points, nine rebounds) and Raymond Benford (five points, six rebounds, five assists) each provided bright spots Friday.

South Medford, however, scored mostly in spurts against Thurston, with the most pivotal coming over the final four minutes of the third quarter when the Panthers pushed a 39-33 advantage to a 49-36 lead heading into the final frame.

“It’s a game of runs,” said Murphy. “If you make one at the right time and you can hold it, usually you can win ... and we did.”

Sophomore Kaleb Franklin opened the 10-3 spurt with a baseline jumper following a kickout by Bradford, then junior Riley Martin drained a 15-footer and Franklin made a driving basket for a quick 6-0 run. After Thurston’s Jesse Conner made a 3-pointer, Carroll scored on a pair of tough driving baskets to close the quarter.

South Medford had previously put up a pair of scoring surges (12-4 to open the game and 10-2 in the second quarter), but the third-quarter finish seemed especially pivotal.

“In the second quarter we weathered the storm and ended it well,” said first-year Thurston head coach Blaine Liberatore, “and then at the end of the third quarter they kind of broke it open going into the fourth. We missed some assignments offensively and that hurt. When you play against an efficient team and a Dennis Murphy-coached team that’s always going to run their stuff well and know what’s going on, you’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game. We did but we just made too many mistakes.”

Thurston was able to cut into its deficit with six straight points by Decker Tovey to open the fourth, but Washington’s work on the backboards resulted in a pair of putbacks and Benford scored on a nice pass by Franklin to keep the Colts at bay.

Franklin finished with four points and four assists, while Martin came off the bench for five points in a game in which South Medford struggled from the field at 39 percent (24-for-62).

“It’s not that we didn’t get good looks or have guys trying, we did,” said Murphy, “we’ve just got to be able to get those to go in.”

Thurston junior Cade Bates scored 21 points to go with nine rebounds, while sophomore Sterling Minor scored all nine of his points in the first half. The Colts were 18-for-37 from the field (49 percent) but committed 17 turnovers.

“Playing against good teams, mistakes are magnified,” said Liberatore. “When you don’t block out or miss an assignment defensively or you don’t come to the ball on offense and they jump a lane and get a layin, it shows up in a 14-point game. But I’m proud of my kids, they played their butts off. They prepared well and they were ready.”

THURSTON (46): Bates 21, Minor 9, Tovey 6, Conner 3, Morton 2, Anderson 2, Powell 2, Lange 1, Robbins 0, B. Baggitt 0, Annus 0, Miller 0. Totals: 18-37 8-13 46.

SOUTH MEDFORD (60): Carroll 14, Bradford 12, Carter 11, Washington 9, Benford 5, Martin 5, Franklin 4, Bock 0, Metcalf 0. Totals: 24-62 7-12 60.

Thurston;13;12;11;10;—;46

South Medford;17;15;17;11;—;60

3-point goals — Thurston 2-13 (Bates 1, Conner 1), South Medford 5-19 (Carroll 2, Carter 1, Benford 1, Bradford 1).

JV score — South Medford 50, Thurston 49.

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

South Medford's Raymond Benford fights for a rebound with Thurston defenders at South. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
South Medford's Eskari Carter goes up over Thurston defenders during the first quarter at South on Friday. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch