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Classic kind of comeback in Medford

Abby’s Holiday Classic returns Tuesday after hiatus with North, South as title favorites

So much has happened since the last Abby’s Holiday Classic until this year’s version, North Medford boys basketball coach Scott Plankenhorn was as surprised as anyone to learn his team was the defending champion heading into the 31st edition.

What wouldn’t surprise him, or really anyone handicapping the three-day, eight-team tournament, would be if his 8-1 Black Tornado were again in the final come Thursday evening.

“I do like our chances, I know that,” said Plankenhorn, whose team beat South Medford in the 2019 final and has been the tourney’s reigning champion ever since following a 2020 cancellation due to COVID-19.

“I know South’s awful good on the other side of the bracket and I know they’re going to be thinking the same thing,” added the coach, “but I like the way we’re playing coming out of winning the Lakeridge tournament. Things are really turning some corners from where we’ve been the last couple years to the level that we really are excited about every day that we show up to the gym.”

In claiming the 2019 crown, North Medford captured its 11th championship in tournament history and fifth in the past six years.

While the Class 6A state power rankings don’t matter much until February, the Black Tornado does enter the tourney ranked No. 2. On the opposite side of the bracket is South Medford (6-2), which is No. 7 in the power rankings and 10th in the 6A coaches poll.

North Medford will be the host site of a pair of Tuesday games, with Ashland (3-2) playing Forest Grove (3-4) at 5:15 p.m. and the Black Tornado entertaining North Eugene (3-4) at 6:45.

South Medford opens at home at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday against Red Bluff (3-9) of California in a game immediately following a 5:15 tip between Roseburg (3-6) and South Salem (3-4).

All games Wednesday and Thursday will be played at South Medford High, with the championship game set for 4:45 p.m. Thursday.

“It’s a huge tournament because it’s a hometown tournament and, obviously, you know you have your rival over there on the other side of the bracket that you’re hoping both of us make it to the finals and have a great game there,” said Plankenhorn. “It’s a big deal and teams come down and enjoy themselves because Abby’s does an amazing job of hosting it with what they do for all the teams that other tournaments just don’t do. It’s a special event for us, for sure.”

Former South Medford head coach Dennis Murphy was a driving force in making the Abby’s Holiday Classic one of the premiere destinations for schools across the state during his tenure, although the Panthers did take a few years off during their heyday with the likes of Kyle Singler, Michael Harthun and company to play in a couple out-of-area events.

South Medford hasn’t won its own tournament since 2012, but boasts nine titles overall. The Panthers and Black Tornado have met up in the championship final eight times, with North claiming the last three matchups to even the series at four wins apiece.

Coming off a strong showing at The Hardwood Invite in Auburn, Wash., current Panthers head coach James Wightman said his team is excited to finally be back home playing in front of their Medford fans and eager to build off what was learned a week ago.

South Medford posted dominant wins over Nathan Hale of Washington and Winter Haven of Florida before fourth-quarter lapses cost the Panthers in close losses to Washington’s Garfield High and O’Dea High

“For us to be leading into the fourth quarter against Garfield, which is maybe the best team in the Seattle area, says a lot about these guys and what they can become,” said Wightman. “We showed a lot of heart and character in that tournament. We just really played unselfish and together and it was a great test for us. We may not see that pace of play again but that’s what made it fun, it was what basketball is all about.”

“Our guys just played hard,” added the coach, “and when they play hard like that, I don’t know what the ceiling is for these guys in the state of Oregon.”

North Medford’s run to a stellar start has been built on a stifling and active defense that is limiting teams to an average of 46 points per game.

Another key for the Tornado has been a balanced attack in all phases that has been spearheaded by seniors Bryce Dyer and the Neff twins, Trey and Ty.

Dyer is averaging 11.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.2 steals entering the tournament as a versatile playmaking forward, while Trey Neff leads the team in scoring at 16.8 points per game to go with 4.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game. In his first year as a starter, Ty Neff is averaging 9.8 points, 3.4 assists, 2.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.

“Trey is an amazing scorer and he’s doing a great job on defense and rebounding and really good things all over the place,” said Plankenhorn. “Bryce is just our guy. He gets buckets when we need baskets or assists when we need them and is always tracking down misses and cleaning up defensive boards.

“Ty’s done a great job of trying to put himself into the point guard situation and still find that ability to score basketball without overdoing it and taking away from the guys that he’s trying to get the ball to. He seems to get a little bit better every game.”

Senior O’Shea Miller has also provided 8.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, while senior Austin McLean and junior Antonio Orozco have been instrumental in setting the tone on defense.

“Sharing the basketball has always been their trend,” Plankenhorn said of his group, “they really like each other and love to share the ball and move it. They know Trey and Bryce are going to get the majority of shots and baskets but they also know Trey and Bryce are going to move it, too.”

Balance and the willingness to share the basketball has also been a key thus far for South Medford, which is led by senior guard Junior Sleezer and senior forward Devon Malcolm but boasts impressive young talent in sophomore point guard Jackson Weiland and freshman guard Boden Howell.

As a four-year starter, Sleezer has ingrained himself in Wightman’s system and carries a confident and competitive mindset into every contest. Sleezer leads the Panthers at 16 points per game and is adept at slashing to the basket as well as dropping in 3-pointers, and Wightman believes his defensive abilities may be among the best in the state.

“Junior is solid,” said Wightman. “I love that kid. He just gets it.”

Malcolm supplies an imposing force and an occasional highlight reel dunk or two as a complement, entering the tournament averaging 14 points and 11 rebounds per game.

Weiland’s calm demeanor at point guard belies his age, and Howell is as capable and fearless of a freshman as South has seen in quite some time. Weiland is averaging 9.3 points and 4.8 assists per game, while Howell has increasingly become comfortable in his role and is up to 14 points per game.

Have a story idea? Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth Medford's Bryce Dyer drives to the hoop during the 4th quarter.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneSouth Medford's Junior Sleezer shoots for 2-points during the 2nd quarter.