Leading by 18 points with 4:58 left Tuesday night, South Medford's boys basketball team sensed that its 10-game losing streak to rival North Medford was about to end.
But the host Panthers left the door open by missing 10 free throws in the last 2:19, and when the Black Tornado's Bryce Dyer converted a four-point play at the end of regulation, the teams headed to overtime.
A sense of impending doom fell over South Medford.
“Even me, I thought we were done,” Panthers coach James Wightman said. “We were like, 'We're all right,' but in the back of everyone's head, and everyone in the gym, is, 'Oh, here goes South again. They found a way to lose to North again.'”
This time, though, the Panthers wouldn't be denied. Junior guard Junior Sleezer hit a tying three-pointer with six seconds left in overtime to force a second extra session, where South Medford prevailed 87-81. Sleezer opened the second overtime with a three-point play and the Panthers made 8 of 10 free throws to close it out.
Sleezer scored 27 points and senior wing Jeremy Gaut added 19 points to lead unbeaten South Medford (5-0). Dyer had 20 points for North Medford (4-1), which suffered its first loss.
It was the Panthers' first win over North Medford since the 2015-16 season, when they were 6A runners-up. Wightman, who replaced longtime coach Dennis Murphy in 2016-17, had lost his first 10 games against the Black Tornado.
“It was a great win for us,” Wightman said. “It means a lot, just for the kids to learn how to beat North, the emotional toll it takes. That was the big one, just to try to beat those guys across town. It's a big thing off the back, and off our kids' backs, and on our side of town.”
In Wightman's first four seasons, South Medford went 8-15, 7-16, 2-22 and 10-15.
“We just have not been that good,” said Wightman, who played at South Medford and started coaching in the program in 2001. “When someone like that leaves, you're going to go through a little spell. But I think I weathered the storm. I'm hoping. We wanted to keep this thing going, and keep it in the family. And now it looks like we're going in the right direction.”
South Medford returned three starters from last season in the 6-foot-2 Sleezer, Gaut (6-5) and senior forward Jude Pannell (6-4). The Panthers also picked up a key transfer in junior wing Devon Malcolm (6-3), a high-flier from 2A Butte Falls, and added a talented freshman in point guard Jackson Weiland (5-11).
South Medford opened this season by beating Roseburg 81-48, Grants Pass 79-50, Ashland 54-44 and Eagle Point 64-46. But the big test came Tuesday against North Medford.
The Panthers appeared in control until they went into a deep freeze at the free-throw line, going 4 for 14 in the last 2:19 of regulation. As the misses mounted, their lead evaporated.
“It was atrocious,” Wightman said. “I've never been a part of that. And we have guys that can step up and shoot. But it was all in their heads. It was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is really going to happen. We're not supposed to beat them.' It was just clang city, baby. When you're used to getting beat, you don't know how to win.”
Sleezer, among those who struggled at the line, saved the day with the tying three-pointer at the end of the first overtime. His three-point play to start the second overtime set the tone against North Medford, which was shorthanded due to foul trouble.
“He's a competitor,” Wightman said of Sleezer, a third-year starter. “He's a strong guard. He was just in attack mode.”
Malcolm was plagued by foul trouble and played limited minutes Tuesday, scoring 10 points, but his addition has been a key factor in South Medford's improvement.
“He's one of the best athletes in the state,” Wightman said. “We can do so much more stuff with him on both sides of the ball, not just on offense. He gives us a presence inside. He's going to go get offensive rebounds. And he's willing to just attack all the time.”
South Medford will play against southern Oregon teams until finishing up June 19 at Beaverton, which is off to a 4-0 start.
“That's going to be a huge test for us,” Wightman said.