Upper St. Clair tops Pine-Richland, celebrates 1st WPIAL title since ’05

Friday, March 12, 2021 | 10:08 PM

There were moments when Danny Holzer could’ve worried in the fourth quarter, probably should’ve been worried, but Upper St. Clair’s longtime coach insists he wasn’t.

“I felt really good because of our seniors,” Holzer said. “I could just sense we were going to win this game.”

With five seniors in the starting lineup, Upper St. Clair completed a mission several years in the making Friday night, celebrating a 56-53 victory over Pine-Richland in the WPIAL Class 6A boys basketball final at Peters Township. They started this season as early favorites, in large part because of their unmatched experience.

“Even with 6 minutes to go, we were up four or whatever it was, I was saying, ‘We’re going to win,’” Holzer said. “We were good, because I could see it in their eyes.”

Ethan Dahlem scored 16 points, Luke Banbury had 14 and Luke Gensler added 12, but the top-seeded Panthers (20-1) couldn’t celebrate until the clock reached zeroes. No. 6 seed Pine-Richland (14-6) rallied late and had two tries at a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds but missed both.

The title was USC’s first since 2005 and third overall.

“I can’t explain the feeling right now,” said Dahlem, who sparked USC’s offense after halftime. “It’s just so surreal.”

His senior class came close a season ago, losing a heartbreaking semifinal in overtime to the eventual champion. This time, they held their breath for a split-second until Pine-Richland’s final shots missed, but then they celebrated at midcourt.

“I can’t really describe it,” Gensler said. “I’m just overwhelmed with happiness right now.”

Upper St. Clair went 60-10 combined over the past three seasons.

Up next for Upper St. Clair is a PIAA playoff opener at home Saturday against Mifflin County, Altoona or Erie High. Only district champions qualify for the slimmed-down state tournament this winter under covid-19 restrictions, leaving Pine-Richland out.

Joey Dudkowski led the Rams with 16 points and Andrew Alexander had 13. They were trying to win their third title in six years, and their first under new coach Bob Petcash.

“We didn’t play the basketball that we played to get to the championship,” Petcash said. “I’m still super proud of these guys. Some didn’t have any real varsity experience (before this season), but you still want to win this championship and we had a chance to do it.”

Pine-Richland trailed by seven points with 1 minute to play and almost completed the comeback. A three-point play by Alexander with 26 seconds left cut USC’s lead to 54-53.

Upper St. Clair struggled from the foul line, making only 5 of 10 in the fourth quarter. Yet, clinging to a one-point lead, Banbury made two free throws with 23.7 seconds left, pushing USC’s lead to three.

Pine-Richland worked for the final shot and Dudkowski had two chances to tie. His first 3-pointer with 12 seconds left bounced off the rim. The Rams got the offensive rebound but a hurried attempt by Dudkowski missed at the buzzer.

“If I had that same situation over again, I would do the same thing exactly again,” Petcash said.

The two teams ranked among the top scoring offenses in WPIAL Class 6A, each averaging more than 70 points per game but combined for only 42 in Friday’s sluggish first half.

Neither team shot well. Upper St. Clair went 7 for 27 in the first half, and Pine-Richland was 8 for 25. The teams combined went 4 for 20 from beyond the arc.

“It got really stagnant at some points,” Dahlem said. “In the second half we tried to drive it more, but we wanted to play really good half-court defense, because we knew they could score a lot.”

USC led 11-7 after one quarter and 23-19 at half.

The Panthers’ on-ball defense kept Pine-Richland’s scorers largely in check. The Rams’ longest run of the game was four points. Dudkowski had 10 of the Rams’ 19 first-half points.

“Our staple for a long part of my career was the half-court, man-to-man defense,” Holzer said. “We got away from it the last couple of years. Against a really good team in a championship game … we wanted great ball pressure.”

Upper St. Clair went 2 for 12 from beyond the arc in the first half but relied later on half-court sets for scoring chances around the rim. The Panthers didn’t have just one go-to scorer this season, but instead won with balance.

That worked to USC’s advantage in the championship.

Dahlem scored 10 of his 16 points after halftime, and teammate David Pantelis had all seven of his points in the fourth quarter.

“I kind of noticed at the very beginning of the game that if we can get the right situation, we can beat them off the dribble with any of our guys,” Holzer said. “I really felt that was going to be the key.”

USC went 12 for 22 shooting in the second half, many around the basket.

“We prepped for them to play man which is unusual for us,” Gensler said. “We’re usually going against a zone. With man we’re able to run our stuff and get what we want.”

Tied at 23 early in the third, Upper St. Clair surged ahead behind a 7-0 run with two layups by Dahlem and a 3-pointer by John Sukernek. The Panthers’ third-quarter lead peaked at 30-23.

Yet, Alexander ended the third with a buzzer-beating 3, cutting Pine-Richland’s deficit to 37-34.

In the fourth, Upper St. Clair pushed its lead back to seven with 1 minute left on two baskets by Pantelis. But Alexander again answered, this time with seven points in a 30-second span. His last came on a runner and foul shot with 26 seconds left, reducing USC’s lead to 54-53.

“I still felt good,” Holzer said. “I knew we would make enough plays to win. I felt that confident in my team.”

Watch an archived broadast of this game on Trib HSSN.

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

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