Upper St. Clair rally falls short in PIAA quarterfinal loss to Central York

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Saturday, March 16, 2024 | 6:44 PM


ALTOONA — The youthful Upper St. Clair boys basketball team made it to the quarterfinals of the PIAA Class 6A tournament.

Once there, the Panthers showed up 16 minutes too late.

“It’s a sad moment,” USC senior point guard Christian Ito said as he emerged from the visitors locker room at the Altoona Area High School Field House. “To know I’ll never get to wear this jersey again, it hurts.”

Ito and the rest of the WPIAL champs rallied and outscored District 3 power Central York by 11 points from the beginning of the third quarter through the mid-fourth, but it still wasn’t enough to claw back from a big halftime deficit. Upper St. Clair eventually ran out of steam and time and succumbed, 71-60, on Saturday afternoon.

The result marked the end of a nine-game winning streak for the Panthers and the conclusion of a 22-6 season.

“This gives us a little bit of experience and lets us know what we’ve got to work for next year,” said junior post player Tyler Robbins, who blocked seven shots, grabbed six rebounds and made his first six shots from the floor en route to a team-high 16 points. “We knew we could be here. We’ve got to strive for more next year and go to a championship.”

Robbins was one of four USC scorers to reach double figures. Peja Strobl came off the bench to made four 3-pointers and finish with 14 points. Brett Meinert netted 12 and Ito 10.

Meinert and Ito are the only seniors on the Panther roster.

“Not many players can say they make it this far, but, obviously, when things don’t go your way, it’s really emotional,” Meinert said. “We came out really slow. We didn’t really execute our game plan. In the second half, our mentality was just to leave everything we have out there and play as hard as you can.

“We were making a comeback. We just didn’t have enough time.”

Trailing by 16 at halftime, Upper St. Clair had the margin down to five when, following Robbins’ second three-point play of the second half, Julian Dahlem stole the inbound pass right under the basket and laid it in with 2:07 left.

Ben Natal, though, beat everyone up the court as Central York broke the USC press. He answered with a layup to increase the lead back to 7 on his way to a game-high 19 points.

Central York ended the game on a 9-3 spurt.

“In the first half, we were tentative. We needed to be more aggressive,” USC coach Danny Holzer said. “That’s the best team we played all year. Not even close. We had a hard time adjusting to that.”

Now 27-3, Central York will meet Reading in an all-District 3 semifinal Tuesday.

“We knew they weren’t going away,” Central York coach Jeff Hoke said of USC. “We felt we had the advantage in quickness, so we had to pressure them. We knew they had shooters. We couldn’t leave them open.”

When Greg Guidinger accepted a 40-foot baseball pass on the left wing, turned and fired in a 3-pointer as time expired in the opening half, Central York had a 34-18 lead.

The WPIAL champs only had 19 field goal attempts over the first two quarters, just one offensive rebound, no free throw attempts and nine turnovers.

Central York had very effectively taken the Panthers out of their game.

“The key was to come out aggressively,” Natal said. “We’re a great offensive team, but the main thing was to buckle down on defense and get stops.”

Robbins only got one shot – a drop step to the rim for an easy two that opened the scoring.

Central York used a 13-0 run in the first quarter to go up by as many as 12. The District 3 sixth-place team outrebounded Upper St. Clair 11-3, scoring its first two buckets after offensive boards to gain the upper hand.

“We missed a couple of layups right off the bat. That got us behind the 8-ball,” Holzer said. “The second half, we settled in and played the way we play and played them toe to toe. We were just a little short.”

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