Upper St. Clair stages furious rally to get past Central Dauphin in PIAA 1st round

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Saturday, March 9, 2024 | 6:46 PM


For the first 10 minutes of its PIAA Class 6A boys basketball first-round playoff game, it didn’t just look like host Upper St. Clair was suffering through a WPIAL champions funk. It looked like the Panthers were sunk.

However, USC battled back and found a way to edge Central Dauphin on Saturday, 57-53.

“It might have been the worst quarter we played all year on both ends,” Upper St. Clair coach Danny Holzer said. “Offensively, we couldn’t get in a rhythm and we weren’t making shots, and defensively, we were letting their best player score, which was the No. 1 thing on our game plan, to not allow (Wayne) Fletcher get to the rim and get open shots and he did it continuously. It couldn’t get any worse.”

With Central Dauphin leading early 3-2, the No. 7 seed out of District 3 scored 13 of the final 14 points in the quarter to lead 16-3 after one.

Fletcher had a huge first quarter, scoring 11 points while all the Panthers struggled scoring as the team only had one field goal.

“I was like, ‘What the heck? What are we doing?’” Upper St. Clair senior guard Christian Ito said. “That wasn’t the type of basketball we play. We were sloppy with the ball. We we’re letting them get stuff in transition. I was like, ‘If we keep doing this, out season will be over.’”

The second quarter didn’t start much better for USC, as it continued to come up empty on possessions while Central Dauphin built its biggest lead of the game with five minutes left in the half, 25-8.

However, things started to turn as the Panthers turned defense into offense to climb back in.

Upper St. Clair scored 11 of the next 12 points and had the basketball with seconds remaining when Central Dauphin senior Lleyton Fried hit a shot just inside half court as time expired to put the Rams up at the half, 29-19.

“We played with more desperation because we were down so big,” Holzer said of the turnaround in the second quarter. “We were able to creep back in.”

The Panthers scored the first six points of the third quarter to creep to within six points; however, following five points in a row by the Rams, USC ended the third quarter with eight unanswered points to begin the final quarter down three, 36-33.

“We finally found our rhythm on offense in the second half,” Holzer said.

The momentum swing kept going back and forth with Upper St. Clair finally tying the game, 40-40, two minutes into the fourth quarter on a pair of free throws from 6-foot-9 junior Tyler Robbins, who was held scoreless in the first half.

The Panthers’ first lead came with 4:34 remaining on a Robbins lay in, then their second lead came a minute later when Julian Dahlem’s nifty feed set up Robbins with a thundering dunk that erupted the big crowd and put USC up, 44-42.

Then the two Upper St. Clair seniors took over.

Ito hit a 3-pointer with 1:48 left to give USC the lead, 50-47.

Following a basket-and-one by Fletcher for the Rams to tie the game, the Panthers’ Brett Meinert hit a 3-pointer with 37 seconds left after Central Dauphin senior Shawn Wright injured his leg on the other end of the floor.

Meinert hit four free throws down the stretch to provide the winning margin for Upper St. Clair.

Fletcher led Central Dauphin with 17 points, but only had six points after the fourth quarter.

Sophomore Jelani Easter had 15 points as Central Dauphin ends its season at 18-9.

“They’re a really good team,” Holzer said. “That District 3 is really, really good with a lot of talented teams. Them being a seven seed in kind of misleading.”

Ito led the Panthers with 17 points, 11 of which were scored in the fourth quarter, while Meinert scored 15 points.

“I don’t want my season to be over,” Ito said of his big fourth quarter. “Especially now that we just won the WPIAL, we want to have a good run in the states, so I was just thinking, not today.”

With their eighth straight win, Upper St. Clair improves to 21-5 and will now face District 6 champion State College in the second round Wednesday.

“The western bracket is really tough in 6A,” Holzer said. “(State College is) are a really good team, and it’s going to be tough, but we’ll be ready to go.”

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