Upper St. Clair ends Baldwin’s WPIAL run with resounding victory in Class 6A final

Saturday, March 2, 2024 | 8:42 PM

“Let’s go dance,” Upper St. Clair coach Danny Holzer told his players, guiding them back to their Petersen Events Center locker room where they bounced and sang along to “Y-M-C-A.”

There might be some debate about whether they’re the best dancers in the WPIAL, but the Panthers left Pitt’s arena Saturday night confident they’re the league’s best basketball team. Third-seeded Upper St. Clair celebrated after winning the WPIAL Class 6A title with a 64-41 victory over No. 4 Baldwin, whose storybook run ended with a bad shooting night.

Making its first finals appearance since 1985, Baldwin went 2 for 18 from 3-point range. That cleared the dance floor for Upper St. Clair to win its fourth WPIAL title overall and second in four years.

“There’s no question we’re playing the best of any team in the WPIAL right now,” Holzer said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

Upper St. Clair (20-5) got another big night from its big man. Tyler Robbins, a 6-foot-9 junior, led all players with 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks. Robbins was also efficient, going 9 for 11 shooting in his double-double.

Senior guard Brett Meinert added 19 points, including three 3-pointers.

These teams split two regular-season games that were decided by one and five points. But Upper St. Clair took a first-quarter lead this time and proceeded to pull away in the second half.

“We came to play,” Robbins said. “I think we found our advantages offensively and really played solid defense throughout the game.”

Nathan Richards scored 18 points for Baldwin (18-7), but the team shot only 31% from the field (18 for 58). USC made 22 of 39 shots including 4 of 10 from beyond the arc for a 56% shooting rate.

“We didn’t play our best game, and that’s the best I’ve seen St. Clair play all year,” Baldwin coach Jeff Ackermann said. “I’ve watched a bunch of their games. Robbins was tremendous, Meinert had 19, and they shot like 70% in the first half. And we were 2 of 18 from 3.”

Baldwin’s postseason run started with its first playoff win in 21 years, followed by the team’s first championship appearance in 39 years. The Highlanders had envisioned a different ending, but Ackermann said he saw progress this season in his fourth year as coach. This was only the second time Baldwin reached the WPIAL finals, and the team is still searching for its first title.

“It was a step for us in the right direction to get there,” Ackermann said. “The community support, the student support, was absolutely amazing.”

Both teams advance to the state tournament with first-round games March 9. Upper St. Clair faces Central Dauphin (18-8), the seventh-place team from District 3. Baldwin draws District 10’s Erie McDowell (21-4).

Upper St. Clair also won WPIAL titles in 1996, 2005 and ‘21, but Holzer said he approached this one with a higher level of certainty.

“I had total confidence that we were going to win,” he said. “The other championship games that we’ve been in, I still always thought we were going to win, but not with the confidence I had today about our team and our kids.”

Baldwin started quickly, scored three consecutive baskets early in the first quarter and led 9-4 on a turnaround jumper by Richards. But Robbins got Upper St. Clair going with 10 points in the quarter as the Panthers took a 20-13 lead.

The final three and a half minutes of the first quarter belong to USC, which grabbed the lead with a 16-4 run. Tied at 13, USC scored the final seven points of the quarter, including a go-ahead 3-pointer by Christian Ito.

The Panthers went 7 for 10 shooting in the quarter, bolstered by a 4-for-4 start by Robbins.

“We intentionally talked about going inside,” Holzer said. “In fact, we put in a couple of new sets … and our guards are just such good players they understood when he gets going, everything else was going to open up.”

Neither team shot well in the second quarter. Baldwin went 4 for 16 from the field, including 0 for 5 from 3-point range. Upper St. Clair made only 4 of 12 shots. But two of USC’s baskets were dunks by Kaamil Jackson and Robbins, and the Panthers led 30-22 at half.

Baldwin’s shooting woes continued in the third, especially from 3-point range. The Highlanders again went 0 for 5 from beyond the arc, misses that let Upper St. Clair push its lead into double digits.

“Defensively, we did a great job on the perimeter,” Holzer said. “We were intentional about that too. We were not going to let Richards or (Nate) Wesling get anything easy. I know Richards got 18, but we made him work for everything.”

USC was helped by a couple of 3-pointers by Meinert and outscored Baldwin by 11 points in the third quarter. The Panthers closed the third with eight straight points, capped by a layup by Robbins to lead 45-28 after three.

Playing with a 17-point lead, USC won the fourth quarter 19-13 to push the margin of victory over 20.

“Maybe not by this big of a margin,” Holzer said, “but I thought we were going to win comfortably if we played the way we’re playing.”

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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