South Medford's Taylor Young (3) races up the floor against Benson's Mahogany Chandler-Roberts. (Photo by Jon Olson)
South Medford's Taylor Young (3) races up the floor against Benson's Mahogany Chandler-Roberts. (Photo by Jon Olson)

PORTLAND – For a No. 1 seed, South Medford arrived with relatively little fanfare in the OSAA/OnPoint Community Credit Union 6A girls basketball tournament this week at the Chiles Center.

But as quietly as the Panthers entered, they left with a bang, holding the coveted blue trophy Saturday night after turning away No. 6 Benson 48-38 in the state championship game.

South Medford emerged on top despite graduating three starters from last year's state runner-up, including star guard Donovyn Hunter, now at Oregon State.

“Nobody thought we were going to be in here,” sophomore point guard Taylor Young said. “Nobody had faith. We were the only ones that had faith in us.”

The Panthers (26-3) knew they were flying under the radar.

“I don't think anyone pictured us back in this tournament, and much less, leaving as champion,” senior forward Kim Ceron-Romero said. “I think that just speaks to the type of people that we are.”

It is South Medford's second official title, the other coming in 2012. It comes three years after the Panthers won an unofficial state championship in the culminating week tournament during the COVID-shortened season.

South Medford locked down the explosive Techsters (23-5) – who were coming off an emotionally charged semifinal win over reigning champion Clackamas – and avenged a 68-58 loss to Benson in December. After that defeat, the Panthers ran the table, winning their last 22 games.

“It was a real turning point for us, because they exposed so many different things that defensively we weren't good at,” South Medford coach Tom Cole said. “From that game forward, we just did things differently defensively. These kids really bought into a team defense concept, and throughout this tournament they proved that it works.”

Junior guard Sara Schmerbach said the Panthers are a “completely different team” than the first time they played Benson.

“No one really knew their role,” she said. “Everyone just kind of clicked into their position and we knew what to do.”

Young scored 15 points, making 6 of 9 shots, and Schmerbach had 15 points, four assists and three steals. Mayen Akpan, a 6-foot-3 sophomore post, added six points, 15 rebounds and two steals and drew three charges on Benson standout senior post Mahogany Chandler-Roberts.

South Medford didn't exactly torch the nets – shooting 40 percent (18 for 45) – but won with defense. The Panthers led 22-10 at half and took their biggest lead at 29-12 midway through the third quarter, holding Benson to 3-for-25 shooting up to that point.

“I'm not going to lie, I was a little surprised when I looked back at the scoreboard,” Ceron-Romero said. “But when we came back into halftime, I told them, 'We've got to pretend like the score is 0-0 and come back and do it again.'”

The Techsters didn't open the game with the same tenacity that they showed against Clackamas on Friday.

“I think just the way we approached the game, we weren't as aggressive,” Chandler-Roberts said. “We weren't playing to the best of our abilities. … We were just in our emotions a lot, and we just didn't play our game.”

Was it hard for Benson to recharge after the Clackamas game?

“It was really hard,” Chandler-Roberts said. “Especially for myself. I was in my head a lot because I didn't want to lose.”

Senior guard Eboni Clay led Benson with 16 points, 14 coming in the second half. Senior guard Mauriana Hashemian-Orr had 10 points for the Techsters, who shot 34.1 percent, including 3 of 14 on three-pointers.

Akpan's defense in the middle against the 6-2 Chandler-Roberts was critical. The Central Florida-bound Chandler-Roberts – coming off a 19-point, 15-rebound game against Clackamas – shot 3 of 10 and finished with eight points and 11 rebounds.

“I knew I had to be physical and make sure that she knew I was there,” Akpan said. “She couldn't just bully me around. I made sure that she couldn't just get a spot, she had to fight for it.”

Akpan had a 6A tournament record 51 rebounds in the three games. She and Chandler-Roberts were first-team all-tournament along with Hashemian-Orr, Clackamas junior guard Jazzy Davidson and Willamette junior guard Brynn Smith.

“Mayen really put a lot of people on notice about how good she is,” Cole said.

Schmerbach marveled at Akpan's play at the tournament.

“It won our games for us,” Schmerbach said.

Benson, going for its first title since 2019, began to find its offense in the middle of the third quarter. The Techsters closed to within 31-18 heading into the fourth quarter, and Clay hit a three-pointer to cut it to 34-28 with 5:25 to go. Clay hit another jumper to make it 36-30 with 5:00 on the clock.

Benson was drawing energy from the partisan crowd, and had a chance to get closer, but Hashemian-Orr missed on a layup. Young responded with a three-point play to restore the lead to 39-30 with 4:07 to go, stunting Benson's momentum.

“That kind of just clicked it for me, and I was like, 'We've got this,'” Schmerbach said of the basket.

The crowd was heavily in favor of Benson as only a handful of South Medford supporters made the five-hour trip.

“The atmosphere was crazy,” Young said. “Every time Benson scored, it was crazy loud. It was definitely us against everyone. Probably everyone was rooting for Benson, but we had our own crowd cheer us on.”

Said Schmerbach: “It was kind of us against Portland. We just had our little section of ours, and we fought through that.”

The Panthers reveled in cutting down the nets. Ceron-Romero, who was a freshman on the 2021 culminating week champion team, came full circle with a new group.

“The feeling never gets old,” Ceron-Romero said. “Just putting it all together with this extremely young and talented group has just been amazing. It's the best feeling. I never want to forget this feeling.”

With players such as Young, Schmerbach and Akpan eligible to return next season, the Panthers could bid for a repeat.

“I'm really excited to see what's to come for them,” Ceron-Romero said.