Gritty Panthers subdue West Salem
If it could go wrong for South Medford this week, it certainly did for the fourth-seeded Panthers boys basketball team.
But at the end of the day Friday, none of it mattered.
Playing without starting guards Junior Sleezer and Jackson Weiland, South Medford grabbed the lead from 13th-seeded West Salem midway through the first quarter and never let it go in a gritty 62-53 victory in the second round of the Class 6A state playoffs.
“West Salem is pretty good and physical, but we still liked our chances with the five guys we had and the guys off the bench,” said Panthers coach James Wightman, whose team ran its record to 23-2.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” he added. “We did it without our starting backcourt, so hat’s off to the boys. That was really good stuff.”
While it was certainly a complete-team effort Friday, freshman Boden Howell and senior Devon Malcolm paved the way to the Panthers making a return to the state tournament at the Chiles Center in Portland next week for the first time in six years with dominant performances.
South Medford will next face No. 5 seed West Linn (20-3), a 71-54 winner over Jesuit, at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday in the quarterfinals.
The 6-foot-3 Howell was scintillating in picking apart West Salem’s zone defense, netting a game-high 25 points to go with three assists and two steals.
His senior counterpart Malcolm supplied the power to put the Titans on their heels, putting down four thunderous dunks as he accumulated 20 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and three blocks.
“We just wanted to give our seniors a chance to go up to state in their last year and we were able to get it done for them tonight,” said Howell. “Hopefully Junior at home is smiling. I love these guys, man.”
“It was a tough one, just a lot of adversity that we were able to battle through,” he added. “I’m just so happy right now.”
Weiland went down one minute into Tuesday’s first-round win over Sunset with a fractured collarbone, in a game the Panthers were already minus a pair of senior regulars.
Earlier Friday, Sleezer was set back by flu symptoms and the Southwest Conference player of the year remained home for what would have been his final game on Dennis Murphy court — although he did experience the final net-cutting ceremony via FaceTime.
“Missing Junior out there, especially, was tough,” said Wightman. “Everything we worked on this week we had to kind of change on the fly.”
To the Panthers’ credit, the next-man-up philosophy played to positive results yet again. Wightman trickled off name after name of players who came up with clutch efforts to keep West Salem (18-7) at bay.
Senior guard Mike Adee splashed four 3-pointers to finish with 12 points and three assists.
Freshman guard Drew Hall handled the point guard role with aplomb, securing five rebounds, four assists, two blocks and one steal.
Senior center Desmond Clayborne pulled in five rebounds and joined seniors Titus Bloodsaw and Gabe Adams in staunch defensive efforts against a well-coached bunch of Titans.
“It was just everybody, just everybody,” said Wightman. “I’m just so proud of all these guys.”
South Medford was up 9-6 when Howell and Malcolm truly took over, scoring the next 12 Panther points to build a 21-14 advantage.
West Salem went on a quick spurt to start the third quarter with consecutive baskets by Jon Breyman and Tommy Slack to trim its deficit to 26-22, but Howell came right back with a 3-pointer, Malcolm had a steal and layup and Howell added another shot beyond the arc on a nice find by Hall to regain momentum at 34-22 with 5:11 to go in the quarter.
“(Howell) is a great player,” said West Salem coach Travis Myers. “He is going to dominate this state for the next three years. He is so good. We didn’t really have an answer for him in the first half. We made a decent little adjustment in the second to limit his touches a little more but they’re a really good team.”
Hindering the Titans’ chances was an especially rough shooting night from beyond the arc, where West Salem went 4-for-19 and made its first 3-pointer with 5 1/2 minutes to play.
“We knew it was going to be a great atmosphere,” said Myers. “We’ve been down here before and people down here love their basketball. We knew South Medford had a great basketball team and we knew it was going to be fun. Our kids really embraced that, I think, but we picked a heckuva night to have our worst night shooting. The atmosphere, the game ... it was exactly what we wanted it to be, we just didn’t hit enough shots.”
Jimmy Lathen’s basket with 29 seconds to play cut South Medford’s lead to 56-50, but Malcolm calmly connected on a pair of free throws.
After a 3-pointer by Slack, who led West Salem with 18 points, Howell made one free throw and Hall stole a pass to set himself up for one free throw to essentially seal it before Malcolm scored a putback to close out the night in front of an energetic packed house at South Medford High.
WEST SALEM (53): Breyman 9, Slack 18, Leach 0, O’Connor 0, Lathen 6, Oertel 7, B. Ferguson 6, T. Ferguson 7. Totals: 24-52 1-2 53.
SOUTH MEDFORD (62): Hall 1, Howell 25, Adee 12, Adams 2, Bloodsaw 0, Clayborne 2, Malcolm 20. Totals: 23-47 10-13 62.
West Salem1261223— 53
South Medford1791719— 62
3-point goals — West Salem 4-19 (Slack 2, Breyman 1, Oertel 1), South Medford 6-13 (Adee 4, Howell 2). Fouled out — Lathen.
Have a story idea? Reach sports editor Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, email@example.com or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry