Upper St. Clair solidified its position as one of the teams to beat in the upcoming WPIAL boys basketball playoffs following impressive back-to-back wins against rivals, Bethel Park and Mt. Lebanon.

The WPIAL announces pairings and seedings Feb. 11. The playoffs commence Feb. 14 and the championships will be contested Feb. 27 through the 29 at University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center.

With his team sitting at 18-3 as of Feb. 6, Panthers head coach Dan Holzer believes USC should not be considered a dark horse to capture the Class 6A championship.

The Panthers have been among the Top 5 in the Class 6A standings with Fox Chapel, Butler, Lebo and Pine-Richland.

“No doubt, there are a lot of good teams out there, but I do think we are up there,” Holzer said. “Even before (the Lebo) win I thought that, but maybe that’s me. We have some impressive wins so I think we’d have a shot. It’s anybody’s to win.”

If the Panthers play defense and make free throws as they did in handing Lebo a 53-48 Section 2 loss, they could be celebrating the school’s first district title since 2005. The Panthers also won a WPIAL title in Holzer’s first season at USC in 1996.

USC forced 22 turnovers against the Blue Devils, who won their fourth straight section title with a 9-1 record.

Though they surrendered an 8-0 run to begin the game and overcame a 38-34 deficit late in the third quarter, the Panthers turned the tide in the final quarter by successfully knocking down 10 of 12 free throws.

“Without question, our intensity on defense was the difference,” Holzer said. “We got a lot of turnovers and that’s hard to do against them. And, we made our free throws.”

USC followed a similar script against the Black Hawks. They fell behind 17-8, but scored 25 points in the second quarter to forge a lead that was never relinquished. The Panthers knocked down eight, 3-point field goals and converted 14 of 17 free throws.

“For us to win, we have to continue to play defense like we did our last two games. We have to play that kind of defense and make our free throws,” Holzer said. “If we can play defense and make free throws that will be key because our defense creates that.”

After a three-week absence from the line-up because of a high-ankle sprain, David Pantelis has created a lift for the Panthers. The junior, who is an all-state football player at wide receiver, missed the first Lebo game and an encounter with Peters Township. Both games resulted in two of USC’s losses.

Against BP, Pantelis came off the bench to score 11 points. He sparked USC with three 3-pointers as well as a coast-to-coast layup after stealing the ball during a third-quarter run.

Against Lebo, he created four steals alone in the first five minutes. He again scored 11 points and is averaging 9.6 points and 3 steals per game.

“David’s a really good player and the kids know what he creates,” Holzer said. “Our team has really bonded together and they know what David brings to the table. He’s brought an extra confidence for sure and provided a big lift.

“I think with him back we have a chance.”

Luke Gensler is USC’s leading scorer, always managing double digits and providing 3 assists per game. Andrew Casey averages 9.7 points and 5.8 rebounds, while Landon Rauch provides 8.4 points and 4.4 rebounds and Ethan Dalhem dishes up 6.2 assists to go along with 8.2 points.

Most recently, Gensler contributed 19 points against Lebo and 13 against BP.

Providing leadership is also a key component of Gensler’s game. The junior is a captain for the Panthers.

“That shows how his teammates regard him,” Holzer said. “They think the world of him. He leads by example. A quiet leader. And, he’s really stepped up in the latter part of the season.

“Luke’s part of our balance and that’s been another real big key for us. When one guy is down, others step up. They are such great teammates and have each other’s back. Our team chemistry is amazing.”

But, so is the chemistry of Lebo and Butler.

The Blue Devils rally around Blaine Gartley and Jake Hoffman. The senior captains kept Lebo in the game against USC with 15 and 13 points, respectively.

The Golden Tornado rallies around Ethan Morton. The Purdue recruit ranks among the top WPIAL scorers with a 24-point average.

Holzer believes Butler is beatable, noting its four losses and a slim 75-71 win earlier this season against Lebo.

“If we can calm down Ethan Morton, not necessarily all his points, but his distribution because they have a lot of other guys that can make shots because he creates that,” Holzer said. “So I think the key to them is to try to minimize those guys getting multiple open looks.

“Then, offensively, we have to be sharp.” Holler added. “We have guys that can score because we have balance. We would be okay there. It would definitely be not allowing those other guys to score points. You have to try and do a lot of things to beat those guys.”

For Holzer, that sentiment especially rings true in the postseason.

“When you get to the playoffs it’s one and done,” he said. “Anything can happen, but I do like where we are and I feel we have as good a chance as anyone. That is all that you can ask for.”

Almanac Sports Editor

An award-winning journalist, Eleanor Bailey has been employed by Observer Publishing Company since 1982. She is the sports editor at The Almanac and a contributor for the Observer-Reporter.

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