When it comes down to facing facts, South Medford’s boys basketball team isn’t going to be favored in any matchup for basic intangibles.
The Panthers aren’t taller, they’re not more experienced and they don’t have elite-level players to simply send out on the floor and let them go.
Where third-year head coach James Wightman knows his team has to make their bread and butter is in sheer effort and determination, and he got to see a little of that Friday in the consolation semifinals of the 29th annual Abby’s Holiday Classic at South Medford High.
The only problem is it came well after the game had essentially been decided, with McNary opening a 36-17 halftime lead before tiptoeing its way to a 55-48 triumph.
The visiting Celtics led by as many as 27 in the third quarter but saw their advantage gradually slip away thanks to more spirited play by the Panthers, who outscored McNary 22-6 in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve been trying to get them to step out of their comfort zone and get out of second gear and go to third and fourth gear, because it’s more fun playing that way,” said Wightman. “They show signs that they can do something but that first half was just atrocious. There is no substitute for playing hard.”
South Medford juniors Peyton Shepard and Ben Harmon came off the bench to spearhead the rally, with Shepard tying junior Keegan Losinski for team-high scoring honors with his 10 points while Harmon added eight points.
Shepard and Harmon were dogged defenders to help slow the McNary attack, then carried that confidence over to the offensive end by taking and making quality shots.
“I really liked how Peyton Shepard and Ben Harmon stepped up,” said Wightman. “I need Peyton and Ben to play like that every night, really for everyone to play like that every night.”
With the win, McNary (6-2) moved into today’s fourth-place final, where the Celtics will square off against North Medford at 1:45 p.m. in the South Medford High gym. The Panthers (1-10) will host West Albany in a noon consolation game.
The fact that those would be the Day 3 matchups was fairly evident in the early going, with McNary using its height advantage to open a 14-2 advantage in the first quarter. With a frontcourt of active 6-foot-7 posts Boston Smith and Noah Hudkins, the Celtics could do no wrong in dissecting the Panthers’ defense, especially after the 6-2 Losinski picked up his second foul midway through the first quarter and had to exit.
While Wightman had no delusions that his team could shut down McNary’s interior attack, he did have hope that South Medford would find a way to compete a little better than it did in the opening 2 1/2 quarters.
“It seems like everyone that we play is bigger than us,” said Wightman, “but you can still fight and still have heart.”
With only one returning starter in junior Sherman Hunter, who has been flu-ridden but came off the bench for nine points, and two others who saw any varsity action last year, turning those engines to full blast has been an issue thus far for the Panthers.
“All year we’ve been kind of struggling with just that effort piece,” said Losinski, who had six rebounds and two steals to go with his 10 points. “We’re a young team and we’re not very confident, but today we learned that we can ball so hopefully that carries over to the next game.”
Part of the turnaround Friday stemmed from a passionate halftime discussion in the Panther locker room.
“At halftime we had a little heart-to-heart conversation about why we’re not playing hard,” said Wightman. “We need to play like our hair’s on fire and play with some heart because you never know if there’s going to be another day.”
Led by Shepard and Harmon, South Medford’s reserves were able to put some of that in play against McNary in the final 12 minutes.
“The second unit came in and they played their tails off,” said Wightman, whose team allowed 19 second-quarter points to McNary and only 19 total in the second half.
Nate Meithof had 15 points and four steals to pace McNary, with Smith adding 13 points and seven rebounds.
MCNARY (55): Meithof 15, Ochoa 0, Lyda 3, Flores 0, O’Connor 10, Hudkins 7, Oliveira 5, Villareal 2, Smith 13. Totals: 18-41 15-23 55.
SOUTH MEDFORD (48): Hunter 9, Shepard 10, DeBoer 0, Bottero 0, Smith 0, Sleezer 7, Harmon 8, Pannell 3, Losinski 10, Townley 0, Ramsay 1. Totals: 17-48 10-13 48.
South Medford98922— 48
3-point goals — McNary 4-11 (Meithof 2, Lyda 1, Hudkins 1), South Medford 4-17 (Hunter 1, Shepard 2, Sleezer 1). Fouled out — Harmon.
Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry