No. 1 Upper St. Clair pulls off gritty win over Bethel Park

Wednesday, January 13, 2021 | 12:34 AM

Defense not only wins championships, it never takes a night off.

It’s too early for the first one, but Class 6A No. 1 Upper St. Clair remained unbeaten Tuesday thanks in large part to its defense.

The Panthers shook off a rough night of shooting and came back to beat visiting Bethel Park, 57-53.

“There’s no question our defense has been out staple for several years now,” Upper St. Clair coach Danny Holzer said. “Our grittiness and our toughness on defense won the game.”

That is no exaggeration by the veteran coach in his 26th season at USC.

The Panthers shot a horrendous 13% from behind the 3-point line, connecting on only 4 of 29 shots; however, 16 steals by the Upper St. Clair defense helped save the day.

“I give all the credit to Bethel Park and their coaching staff,” Holzer said. “They came ready to play, and they took it to us, especially in the first quarter. I was very impressed with how hard they played.”

It was an impressive season opener for coach Josh Bears and his Black Hawks. They have a young and inexperienced team after graduating all five starters from last year’s team that finished 14-9.

“I was very proud of their effort,” Bears said. “They showed what they’ve been showing us each day in practice — an appreciation for their opportunity to play and not taking anything for granted.”

Bethel Park scored the game’s first seven points before Upper St. Clair started turning defense into offense and went on a 9-0 run for a rare first-half lead. The Black Hawks scored the next five points and led 14-11 after one quarter.

The second quarter was more of the same — lots of missed shots for USC and turnovers for BP. The Hawks matched their first-quarter point total and led 28-27 at halftime.

“Game was a battle,” Bears said. “Our ability to rebound, defend and unselfishness on offense kept us in it.”

Both teams continued to shine on defense, and the Panthers finally reclaimed the lead, 41-38 at the end of the third quarter.

The Panthers built their biggest lead at 52-46 with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Black Hawks had an answer with seven straight points and took a 53-52 lead with two minutes left.

With 1:04 left, Upper St. Clair took the lead for good when Luke Banbury missed another 3-pointer but before fouling out, Pantelis followed with a huge tip-in.

“For as bad as Dave was today — he may have played one of his worst games I’ve ever seen — he made a big play when we needed it,” Holzer said.

Luke Gensler scored the game’s final three points from the free-throw line in the final minute to ice the game for the Panthers.

“Ultimately, they made enough plays down the stretch to get the win,” Bears said.

Bethel Park (0-1) got a big performance from their big man, 6-foot-5 junior Dolan Waldo, who scored a game-high 21 points.

“Dolan is a dynamic player,” Bears said. “He changes the game. As his confidence grows, he’s going to continue to improve.”

Upper St. Clair (3-0) was led by senior Ethan Dahlem, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the second half. Pantelis added 11 points for the top-ranked Panthers.

USC was averaging 83 points per game after wins over Lincoln Park and North Hills. A small sample size indeed, but Bethel Park was able to keep the Panthers 25 points under their average.

“It was fun to be in a game like this, to see what you’re made of,” Holzer said. “Let’s face it, every good team has tough nights, and when you have those tough nights, can you win? We found a way to win.”

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