Strong 2nd half carries Upper St. Clair past Pine-Richland, into semifinals

Saturday, February 22, 2020 | 8:22 PM

Maybe it is the team’s gritty style. Maybe it is coaching adjustments, or maybe it is just the names on the roster.

Whatever the reason, Upper St. Clair often is better after halftime than before, a trait that let the fourth-seeded Panthers regroup and defeat No. 5 Pine-Richland, 62-59, on Saturday in a WPIAL Class 6A quarterfinal at North Hills.

USC coach Danny Holzer credits the team’s style of play for the strong second halves.

“It’s like a cumulative effect,” he said. “We don’t let up the entire game, and I think that wears on teams.”

This time, it was USC’s defense that improved dramatically.

Pine-Richland scored 42 first-half points including 24 in the first quarter, but USC held the Rams to just 17 in the second half.

“I told (my players) at halftime, ‘It’s 32 minutes, not 16,’ ” Holzer said. “The second half has been our best quarters by far. That’s what we’ve done all year.”

Upper St. Clair (20-3) next faces No. 1 Butler (18-4) at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Robert Morris. The WPIAL scheduled a Class 6A semifinal doubleheader at RMU’s new UPMC Events Center.

Mt. Lebanon plays Central Catholic at 6:30 p.m.

USC is trying to reach the WPIAL finals for the first time since 2005. That championship team from 15 years ago, which featured future NFL linebacker Sean Lee, also was a strong second-half team.

“They were just like these guys: gritty,” Holzer said. “The games could be close, and then in the second half we’d be able to open it up.”

Anthony Casey led Upper St. Clair with 18 points, David Pantelis and Luke Gensler each scored 13, and Landon Rauch added 11. Kyle Polce had 18 for Pine-Richland (15-9), Joey Petcash had 12 and Logan Murray had 11.

“We couldn’t get any offensive flow in the second half,” Pine-Richland coach Jeff Ackermann said. “We really shot well in the first half and shared the ball well. But then in the second half, we really were stagnant.”

Pine-Richland’s second-half start had ominous signs.

Murray saw two 3-pointers roll around deep inside the rim before each popped out.

“Those were six points right there that really hurt us,” said Ackermann, insisting he never had seen two 3-pointers that were so “in” come back out.

Pine-Richland led 24-14 after the first quarter and 42-34 at halftime. Upper St. Clair’s only first-half lead was 3-2. But the Panthers started the second half with a 12-2 run, and a 3-pointer by Ethan Dahlem from the left wing gave them a 46-44 lead with around 3 minutes left in the third quarter.

“Offensively, we said we need to attack more north and south,” Holzer said. “We were dribbling too much east and west. We’ve got to get to the rim. They had foul trouble, and we truly felt like they couldn’t guard us off the dribble.”

The lead changed hands five times late in the third quarter, the last on a layup by Gensler to lead 50-49. Teammate Andrew Casey converted a steal into another layup 30 seconds later, and USC entered the fourth with a 52-49 lead it never lost.

USC trapped less after halftime and stuck with its man-to-man defense.

“Our defense was terrible in the first half,” Casey said. “We decided to stay with more man and less trap because … we didn’t have communication. So we went back to man, and that’s when we play our best.”

USC had a four-point lead with less than 2 minutes left in the fourth but had a little trouble sealing the win at the free-throw line. The Panthers missed four consecutive free throws, including the front end of two one-and-ones before Gensler made a pair with 8.4 seconds left.

However, USC’s lead never dropped below three.

“Sometimes, we’ll make them, and we’ll do really well,” Holzer said. “And there are other games when we just can’t get one to go. It’s incredible. Our defense keeps us alive.”

Listen to an archived broadcast of this game on Trib HSSN.

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at or via Twitter .

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