USC facing tall task against Seneca Valley
Seneca Valley the next test for Panthers in WPIAL Quad-A quarterfinals
Upper St. Clair (20-3) faces a tall order, literally, when the Panthers battle Seneca Valley (16-7) in the WPIAL Quad-A boys’ basketball playoffs. The game is set for Feb. 23 at a site and time to be determined.
“They’re really tall,” said USC floor boss Danny Holzer. “They’re a different type of player than (Norwin). They’re really long.”
Just as the Knights, whom the Panthers edged, 57-56, thanks to a 3-point bucket by Jordan Grabowski with 2.4 seconds to play, Seneca Valley poses a threat to USC’s 17-game winning streak, not to mention their hot hand from the outside. Against Norwin, USC buried 13 field goals from beyond the arc, including Grabowski’s game-winner.
The Raiders, who hail from Section 3, which garnered the top three seeds in the Quad-A tournament based on strength of schedule, favor zone defenses. Holzer knows the strategies well as Seneca Valley skipper Victor Giannotti coached against the Panthers when he headed the Peters Township program.
“They like to play a lot of zone defenses, 1-3-1 and match-up zones,” said Holzer. “They are so long and tall and we are going to have to work really hard on getting open. I’m glad we’ve had a week to prepare.”
Unlike USC’s thriller against Norwin, Seneca Valley ripped Central Catholic, 72-41, in its playoff opener. Despite finishing fourth in Section 3 behind undefeated New Castle (22-0), North Allegheny (19-3) and Hampton (19-4), the Raiders proved their placed in the post-season as R.J. McCauley exploded for 26 points and Easton Bazzoli fired in 22 tallies.
At 6 feet three inches tall, 220-pound, McCauley is a senior forward bound for California University of Pennsylvania for football. McCauley is a primary concern for the smaller Panthers, who rely on their outside shooting.
Norwin, however, helped prepare the Panthers for what they face in the quarterfinals, mainly 10 players taller than 6 feet 1 and half 6 feet 3 inches or bigger.
Against the Knights, USC needed 13 3-point field goals to win. The Panthers knocked down nine in the first half, seven in a 26-point second stanza that enabled them to turn a 15-6 deficit into a 32-30 advantage by halftime.
Joel Klein led the uprising. He buried eight shots from beyond the arc and finished with a game-high 24 points. Klein buried four 3-pointers in the second quarter, while reserve Conor Gallagher supplied two and finished with eight points.
“Joel is a tremendous shooter and he kept us in the game,” said Holzer. “And, don’t forget about Conor Gallagher’s two 3s in that quarter. He and Joel kept us around in the first half.”
When Norwin switched to a box-and-one on Klein, Grabowski, Pete Coughlin and J.J. Conn stepped it up, particularly on defense, in the second half. When Grabowski and Coughlin combined for a steal and fast-break lay-up, USC opened its widest lead of the contest, 34-30.
“Jordan and Pete are our emotional leaders. When things weren’t going well, those two got us up. They weren’t going to let us lose this game. They stayed up the whole game. Kept it positive.”
“We win,” continued Holzer, “because of what Coughlin does on defense. Those two refused to lose. They willed us to win.”
While J.J. Conn, with a 3-pointer, enabled USC to stay even with the Knights, 42-42, through three periods, Klein again picked up the pace, breaking free for a pair of long-range buckets before a determined Grabowski did in the Knights.
After Matt Stewart, who finished with a team-high 22 points, 19 of which occurred in the first half, appeared to seal the victory by sinking one of two free throws, giving the Knights a 56-54 lead, Grabowski stepped up and silenced Norwin.
“Jordan did not blink,” said USC floor boss Danny Holzer. “He’s very composed and confident. Jordan is such a tough, hard-nosed kid. He stepped up. He wanted the ball in his hands, whether it was to make the play or to pass it to somebody who would make the hoop. He just refuses to lose.”
For himself and his six fellow seniors, including Coughlin, Klein, Gallagher, John Duffy and Patrick Jonnet, Grabowski refused to go down in defeat.
“I’m a senior,” Grabowski said proudly. “I didn’t want to let the team down. Once I got it, I knew that I was going to shoot it.”
Today, USC has a shot at reaching the Final Four and qualifying for the PIAA state tournament.
“Four more quarters,” said Holzer. “That’s what I’m telling my guys. We want to keep going. Everybody’s goal when you start this thing is to get to Palumbo and in the quarterfinals all the teams are one game closer.
“But you can’t lose sight of the fact that you have to take it one game at a time. And at this point, all eight teams are really good. All the teams are outstanding.”
And, that includes Holzer’s own club despite those who say Section 4 was down this year. Since 2004, that division has produced six WPIAL champions.
“Five different teams from our section have won championships and this year, other than New Castle, Quad-A is very balanced,” said Holzer. He pointed to Lebo’s loss to Hampton, 53-48, and BP’s overtime loss to McKeesport as examples.
“Those games could have gone either way,” he said. “Those games demonstrated how really balanced Quad-A is.”
When it comes down to it, Holzer says he sticking with his club, a club that has not lost since Dec. 18 against Bethel Park, 38-17, a club that won Section 4 with a 13-1 slate.
“With the team I have and the kids I have, we expect to win,” he said. “(Seneca Valley) is going to be a tough, tough game, but if we play well, we can win. If we shoot well, we can play with anybody. If you shoot well, you think you’ll be okay. But it’s the playoffs and things are different. You can never predict how things will go and how they will play out.”