South Medford's Donovyn Hunter (right) drives against Beaverton's Lainey Spear on Wednesday. (Photo by Jon Olson)
South Medford's Donovyn Hunter (right) drives against Beaverton's Lainey Spear on Wednesday. (Photo by Jon Olson)

BEAVERTON – In March 2020, the South Medford Panthers left Portland with a bitter taste in their mouths.

They had just reached the semifinals of the 6A girls basketball tournament at the Chiles Center -- and had a finals showdown with top-seeded Beaverton in their sights -- when the season came to a crashing halt due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It was a big disappointment because we were finding out when we were walking out of the gym,” South Medford coach Tom Cole said of the tournament's cancellation.

It took 15 months, but South Medford finally got a crack at Beaverton on Wednesday afternoon. And although the Beavers are a much different team than last year, the Panthers (4-0) found some extra satisfaction in beating the host Beavers 52-43 to end their 25-game winning streak.

“”We wanted to play them when we were predicted to play in the state championship,” Panthers senior guard Toni Coleman said. “So this is almost like a make-up game. So winning this game for us is really big.”

The Panthers made the long drive north Wednesday for a three-game, three-day road trip that includes games against Grant on Thursday and West Linn on Friday. In dispatching the Beavers, they felt much better than they did after their last game in Portland, a quarterfinal win over Sheldon.

“This is the first time any of us have been back to Portland,” Cole said. “In some ways, it feels like a bit of redemption to come back here and play basketball.”

The Panthers, who returned all but one starter from last season, won their first three games by an average margin of 45.0 points against southern Oregon opponents. But they got all they could handle from Beaverton (6-1), which has quickly retooled after graduating three Division I players.

Beaverton led 36-35 early in the fourth quarter before South Medford went on an 11-0 run to take control. Sophomore guard Donovyn Hunter converted a steal into a basket and hit a three-pointer during the surge, and when Coleman made two free throws with 3:04 left, the Panthers were up 46-36.

“It was just coming together,” said Hunter, who scored a team-high 16 points. “At the end of the day, we knew that we could win the game. We wanted hard teams, so this was a good win for us. We proved a point. We were out here to win this game.”

Senior guard Kaili Chamberlin scored 15 points and Coleman added nine points for South Medford, which extended its winning streak to 20.

The Panthers – loaded with college-bound seniors in guards Chamberlin (McNeese State), Coleman (Chico State), Emma Schmerbach (Linfield) and Bella Stone (UC Santa Cruz) – feel as if they have something to prove.

“Honestly, I feel like we came back this season with a chip on our shoulder, especially after that big disappointment,” Coleman said. “We just came back with the same mentality. We want to finish strong, be the best team in the state. So that's a big thing for us. I think we showed a little bit of what we could do today.”

Beaverton coach Kathy Naro was impressed with the Panthers.

“They have so many weapons and they took advantage of them,” Naro said. “I don't think that we took advantage of the weapons we have. Their physicality really bothered us. They're very physical and strong. They're a great team.”

The addition of the 5-foot-10 Hunter, who is averaging 13.0 points, takes the Panthers to another level. She was touted as one of the nation's top players in her class before suffering a torn ACL and missing her freshman season.

“It was tough,” Hunter said. “Hurting yourself, it's obviously a mental game, sitting and watching. But it was good supporting my team. I knew I was going to get back out here.”

Hunter's minutes restriction was lifted this week. She scored a team-high 20 points in a win over Crater on Tuesday.

“She brings really good leadership, especially this being her first year and being so young,” Coleman said. “She's a great point guard, great handles, really good basketball IQ. So she brings a lot to the table. It's been real fortunate for us to have her.

“She's going to be a stud. She's going to be someone you've got to keep your eye on for the next two years. It's going to be exciting to watch her play the next couple years.”

Hunter showed her poise against Beaverton by handling defensive pressure and not forcing her offense. She made 7 of 9 shots from the field, including 2 of 4 from three-point range.

“She's very even,” Cole said. “She doesn't try to do too much. She's very efficient. I think part of it is figuring out how much she can trust the injury, and coming back. But you watch her in sprints, and she's one of the first kids down the floor. She's right with Toni. I think the more frequency of playing, you'll get to see some other things, some other gears that we've yet to see from her.”

Beaverton had its moments Wednesday. The Beavers scored the last 10 points of the first half to lead 22-17, and after falling behind in the third quarter, battled back to lead behind 6-1 sophomore post Lainey Spear.

But Beaverton, which shot 30.6 percent (15 of 49) and was 7 of 17 on free throws, went ice cold in the fourth quarter.

“We couldn't make a shot,” Naro said. “We were struggling scoring, so we've got to look at what we were running and why we struggled with that.”

Beaverton sophomore Zoe Borter, a 6-0 wing who entered averaging 21 points, scored 16 points. Spear also had 16 points, with 15 coming in the second half.