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South Medford players believed in themselves — and now Panthers are back in Oregon 6A girls basketball final

Panthers hold off rival Willamette for 46-43 victory in OSAA semifinal, will try again for elusive state title Saturday
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PORTLAND — Back in December, South Medford wasn’t sure where it’d land with the rest of the state. 

The Panthers knew they’d be good, but how good? Was a return to the state championship game a realistic possibility? 

On Friday, they got their answer. Top-seeded South Medford pulled out a 46-43 victory over Willamette in the Class 6A girls basketball state semifinals at the Chiles Center, and the Panthers get another shot at a state title after runner-up finishes in 2023, 2014 and 2013. 

“Our group is pretty special,” South Medford sophomore guard Taylor Young said. “We had high expectations.”

Panthers coach Tom Cole knew there were questions after losing three senior starters, including current Oregon State star Donovyn Hunter, but saw his players have that belief.

“It takes a lot of character, and they weren’t that way in the beginning,” Cole said. “I knew that we were capable of doing some good things. I don’t know that we would’ve been back in the state championship, but I know we’d be relevant. I know this group is really young and still growing up, but they took a big step again tonight.”

There were no secrets between the two programs. South Medford won the previous two meetings with Willamette by double digits, but beating a conference rival a third time proved not as easy. 

“They know us maybe better than we know ourselves at some points,” Cole said.

But down the stretch, South Medford made the decisive plays.

The Panthers took a 44-43 lead with 9.6 seconds left on the first of two free throws by senior Kim Ceron-Romero.

After a miss on the second free throw attempt, South Medford sophomore Mayen Akpan grabbed the biggest of her game-high 18 rebounds and kicked it back out. Fellow sophomore Taylor Young was fouled and sealed the win with two free throws with 4.8 seconds to go.

a South Medford Southridge 6A Oregon girls basketball quarterfinal 2024 Dan Brood 14

Willamette’s final full-court heave was stolen, and the Panthers dribbled out the clock.

Akpan had 36 rebounds over her first two games of the tournament.

“Anything can happen, so I had it on my mind on getting that ball no matter what,” Akpan said. “I’m always ready, especially for rebounding. I’m always ready to get the miss. That’s my thing on the team. I’m a rebounder; I’m big in the paint for that. I’m really glad I could get to that one and contribute. That was a big one.”

Cole said Akpan is an integral part of what the Panthers do.

“We’re not here without her and we don’t win without her,” Cole said. “She is a pivotal piece of what we do. Not to take anything away from anybody else, but she’s really special with her size and her athleticism.” 

In addition to Akpan’s domination on the boards, South Medford received huge contributions from its steady two-year starting point guard in Young, who had a game-high 17 points, and junior Sara Schmerbach and her opportunistic scoring with 15 points — 11 of them coming in the second half to help hold off Willamette.

“We weren’t the main scorers (last season), so now we had to step up,” Young said. “People who were on the bench (last season) had to step it up, and everyone has.”

Willamette had plenty of opportunities to take control of the game. But each time the Wolverines took the lead in the second half, South Medford had an answer.

After Willamette took a 31-30 lead on free throws by junior Harper Wagner with 1:44 left in the third, South Medford ended the quarter on a 7-2 run to regain the lead.

Willamette again battled back from a 41-33 deficit early in the fourth, tying the score at 43-43 on junior Brynn Smith’s layup with 47 seconds to go. But the Wolverines couldn’t get over the hump. 

“It stings and our girls are feeling it,” Willamette coach Danielle McBride said. “Playing someone three times, you know their tendencies. They do a really good job of going on runs, so we tried to limit those as much as we can. I think our girls did a really good job attacking them. In the past, we haven’t gone after them as hard as we did tonight, and that shows our growth.”

With zero seniors and six juniors who received playing time Friday, McBride is confident her team can get back to the tournament and remind the state of a program that won four Class 5A state titles from 2007-14.

“There’s no doubt in my mind (we can get back),” McBride said. “Knock on wood everywhere. We have an excellent team. We have girls who compete every single day in practice. We run a pretty tight rotation, so we stay in pretty good shape, too.”

Smith had a team-high 15 points with four rebounds. Junior Isabella Harms added 13 points, junior Harper Wagner added seven points and three rebounds, and junior Victoria Nguyen had five points and six rebounds. 

South Medford rides a 21-game win streak to the state championship game against Benson on Saturday night at 8:45 p.m.

“I don’t think many people thought we’d be back here,” Cole said. “I thought our kids, to their credit, believed in themselves.”

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Photo by Dan Brood