Sewickley Academy boys capitalize on team growth before playoff exit

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Monday, March 15, 2021 | 1:03 PM


The Sewickley Academy boys basketball team started this season without an identity or a sense of superior athletic talent that could carry them to wins.

By the end of the season, though, the Panthers started doing things the old-fashioned way, and it worked.

They played hard-nosed defense and limited top-seeded OLSH, a team that had averaged 75.4 points per game, to 45 points. They also leaned on a pair of seniors, Max Belt and George Zheng, as leaders and as scorers. As the season progressed the Panthers jelled.

“I think our kids just did a fabulous job. They listened, they learned and they got better,” Sewickley Academy coach Win Palmer said. “We competed so well down the stretch, and our coaching staff is so proud of these guys. We maxed our potential.”

“The guys checked their egos at the door, which is a coach’s dream.”

The Panthers’ season came to an end in the WPIAL Class AA quarterfinals March 6 when they lost to Greensburg Central Catholic, 48-41. At one point in the third quarter, the Panthers were down 16 points, but they came storming back and cut the deficit to three points with a minute to go.

It was a perfect example of what the Panthers had been doing all year.

“To come back like that, it just speaks to the kinds mental toughness, composure, belief in each other and also their belief in the coaches,” Palmer said. “It was just so thrilling to see.”

Sewickley Academy started its season with two straight wins but went 4-5 over the next nine games as it continued to try and find an identity. Then two straight losses helped them turn their season around just in time.

The first was a 10-point loss to Shenango, which received the No. 8 seed in WPIAL Class 2A, and the second was a loss to OLSH. But it wasn’t the result that mattered to Palmer and the Panthers. It was how they got there.

They had just held one of the highest-scoring teams in the WPIAL to 30 points below its average, and a few mistakes in the second half cost them the game. It gave them a sign of hope, and it showed how good they could be if they stuck to that plan moving forward.

“The OLSH game was critical, and we made some mistakes that OLSH took advantage of but after the game guys were disappointed. They weren’t happy,” Palmer said. “They knew they had played a good game, but they were disappointed because they really wanted to do something. From that point, we just came out and played better and better.”

After their loss to OLSH, the Panthers won their final two regular-season games, including a 49-42 win over Greensburg Central Catholic. Palmer said they just stuck to the same gameplan but didn’t make the critical mistakes this time around.

“It just became this idea that we can all play defense. It doesn’t matter if we’re undersized. We’re going to make it as tough as can be for you to score inside, and we’re still going to get out on shooters,” Palmer said. “We knew we were going to gain the mental edge because then we’d come down on offense and sometimes, we’re going to score quickly and sometimes were going to go 8-10 passes. It was just a great combination.”

All season long, Palmer wanted his team to peak at the right time, and they were doing just that.

After their win over GCC, the Panthers took down Northgate, holding them to 15 points in the preliminary round of the WPIAL Class 2A playoffs. Then, they defeated seventh-seeded Carlynton by 15 points to set up another matchup with GCC.

They came out on the losing end, but the growth Palmer saw throughout the year was exceptional, and Palmer was happy with the culture that his eight seniors instilled in the program.

“They created a culture, and we’ll return nine guys who all go to learn from that culture,” Palmer said. “Now it’s their responsibility to take what they’ve learned and apply it to themselves now until next year. They need to learn from these eight guys and just apply it to their game and say ‘OK, now it’s my turn.’ ”

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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