Upper St. Clair embraces the madness, avenges loss to State College

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Wednesday, March 13, 2024 | 9:43 PM


JOHNSTOWN — This is the kind of March madness Upper St. Clair coach Danny Holzer likes most, a state basketball tournament where his Panthers are making a deep bracket run.

And one where he’s there to watch.

Upper St. Clair is headed to the PIAA elite eight after a 63-43 victory over District 6 champion State College in the Class 6A second round Wednesday at Pitt Johnstown. And unlike three years ago when covid tests forced Holzer and some players to watch from home, he’ll be on the bench.

“I’m a basketball junkie,” Holzer said. “I look at college brackets, high school brackets — and not just 6A. I love this. I know exactly who we have to play to get to the next step. I even watch film of teams we’re not even playing.”

That’s the fun of the state tournament, he said, playing against some unfamiliar teams from other PIAA districts. Waiting for Upper St. Clair (22-5) in the quarterfinals Saturday is Central York (23-3), the fifth-place team from District 3. A site and time hasn’t been announced.

Central York defeated Red Lion, 70-54, in a second-round game Wednesday. Holzer couldn’t guess who’d win that one, so he spent time at home Tuesday watching video of both.

“I said, ‘If we win, we’re going to get one of these teams, so let’s get ready,’” he said.

State College wasn’t entirely new to Upper St. Clair, considering the teams met in the first round of states a year ago. The Little Lions won then, 72-42, and Upper St. Clair hadn’t forgotten.

In the rematch, USC pulled away in the second quarter with four 3-pointers, including back-to-back 3s by senior Brett Meinert in the final minute. Tyler Robbins added a long 3-pointer at the buzzer and the Panthers led 36-21 at half.

“We got blown out by this team last year,” Meinert said, “so this was definitely a chance for us to come back out here, show them we’re a better team and give them what they deserve – respectfully.”

Robbins led USC with 15 points, Meinert had 11 and Christian Ito had 10. Nate Price scored 16 points for State College (13-13).

The Little Lions ended the first quarter trailing by only two, but were outscored 23-10 in the second.

“I think we had to get settled,” Holzer said. “The first four or five minutes, you could tell we’d just got off a bus ride for two hours. We were lethargic. But we made a couple of baskets and our defense picked up, too.”

Upper St. Clair pulled away with a 16-2 run that stretched into the second half. A 3-pointer by Ito gave the Panthers an 18-point lead one minute into the third quarter.

They entered the fourth leading 49-31.

“Transition offense was going to be a big factor in this game,” Meinert said. “We cause havoc on defense, turn it into points on the offensive end and just repeat that the whole game.”

Bus rides are another charm of the state tournament. Upper St. Clair had an 85-mile trip to Johnstown and should have another long one Saturday. The Panthers practiced at the high school before leaving and arrived at UPJ early enough to stretch at the campus’ wellness center.

“We still got off to a slow start,” Holzer said. “But once we got settled in the second quarter and got our rhythm, we were pretty darn good.”

Upper St. Clair is headed to the state quarterfinals for only the second time since a run in 2003. The team last got there in 2021, when covid restrictions reduced the state bracket to a seven-team tournament with district champions only. The tournament started in the quarterfinal round, and Upper St. Clair defeated Erie High, 62-57.

But covid left the team with only six players and without most of its coaches that day. Holzer returned for the semifinals, where USC’s run ended against eventual state champion Reading.

Now they’re back.

“This is the real experience of March madness — the high school version,” Holzer said. “You can see the excitement in our kids knowing that now we’re going on another bus trip somewhere.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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