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Mayenabasi Akpan, sophomore rebounding machine, a critical piece in South Medford’s run to Oregon 6A girls basketball final

After pulling down 18 rebounds in Friday's OSAA semifinal win, Akpan is on pace to break Cameron Brink’s tournament record

A year ago, Mayenabasi Akpan had the best seat in the house as a freshman reserve to watch her South Medford teammates battle Clackamas in the OSAA 6A girls basketball state final

Saturday night at the University of Portland’s Chiles Center, Akpan won’t sit idly by as the Panthers play Benson in the championship game

“We’re not here if Mayen is not doing her job,” coach Tom Cole said after his 6-foot-3 sophomore post grabbed 18 rebounds, including a game-sealing 11th on the offensive glass in the final seconds of South Medford’s 46-43 semifinal win Friday night over Southwest Conference rival Willamette

“We can get production from our guards and get scoring from different places, but what she does on the boards offensively and defensively, we haven’t had a kid like that since 2012 with a physical presence and size.” 

That “kid,” Tess Picknell, helped lead the Panthers to their only state championship that season before playing for Stanford.

Cole isn’t quite ready to put Akpan on that level, but what Akpan has done in two days at Chiles Center — grabbing 23 offensive rebounds and 36 total — has her on pace to break Cameron Brink’s single-tournament record of 47 set in 2019.

“I don’t even know if she knows how big the moment is,” Cole said. “I mean, honestly, she is so humble, and she’s still maturing. So, what she’s doing physically out there looks like this strong, assertive presence, but she’s maturing and getting confidence.

“And that’s probably the most fun part of this journey is watching her gain the confidence from being successful and seeing how she holds herself and believes in herself, and the team obviously relying on her and believing in her, too.”

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Akpan’s offensive game is still a work in progress (she had eight points Friday on 3-of-8 shooting), but her vacuum-like presence in the paint has made her invaluable in the Panthers’ 21-game win streak that has propelled them to their fifth championship game appearance since 2012.

“The dominance that she possesses in the paint is really big for us,” said senior teammate Kim Ceron-Romero. “She’s just been great all-around for us, and there’s not enough we could say about what she does for us.” 

“That’s my biggest role in the team is just getting everything I can, kicking it back out or going back up with it,” Akpan said. “That’s definitely something I can help with.”

Akpan has come a long way from last March, when she received limited minutes in the Panthers’ first two tournament games before going unused in their 56-46 loss to Clackamas in the final.

She learned last season from players such as Donovyn Hunter — an all-state guard who made the Pac-12 all-freshman team this year at Oregon State — Tatum Schmerbach and Kendall Fealey.

“Definitely just watching the seniors, I was like, ‘I want to be able to get there sometime, at a point this year or next year or whenever I could,’” Akpan said. “I want to practice to be like Donovyn. She was a really big inspiration. And Kim, too. I know she’s still on the team, but I can still watch and be like, ‘I wish I could dribble like that.’”

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Akpan battled foul trouble throughout the first half Friday, picking up her second early in the second quarter and her third with a minute left.

She said it made her more cautious about when to attack the glass in the second half, but it didn’t affect her on the game’s critical play — Ceron-Romero at the line with 9.6 seconds left and the score tied 43-43.

Ceron-Romero made the first free throw, but the second clanged off the back rim. With three Wolverines around her, Akpan dug in and snatched the rebound, then kicked it out to teammate Taylor Young at the top of the three-point arc.

Young was fouled with 4.8 seconds left and made both free throws to help seal the win. 

“Gotta thank my genes, you know, long arms — they’re always helpful,” she said, smiling. “But I was just really focused on getting that ball, making sure nobody else could get to it. And it was the end of the game, so if I fouled out, there was, what, nine seconds left? It was OK.”

And now, after going two days without a similar post presence to battle, Akpan will face Benson 6-foot-2 senior Mahogany Chandler-Roberts, a three-time PIL player of the year and University of Central Florida signee who had 19 points and 15 rebounds in Friday’s 51-47 semifinal win over Clackamas.

Cole thinks Akpan is ready for the challenge.

“You know, I don’t think she’s focused on one matchup,” he said. “She doesn’t know enough about these other kids to go, ‘I’m going up against (Mahogany).’ She’s just taking her journey step by step.

“But I know this — she’ll come in with a great attitude. She’s going to use the opportunity to learn, and that’s been her journey all year. And she’s going to compete.”

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Photos by Dan Brood