Best days ahead for USC Panthers
When Mt. Lebanon defeated Upper St. Clair, 45-41, the Blue Devils not only snapped the Panthers’ 18-game winning streak in Section 4-AAAA boys’ basketball, they exposed their greatest weakness.
“Offense,” said USC head coach Dan Holzer. “Our offense hasn’t gelled yet.”
When and if it does, then look out for USC. See, despite the defeat to their chief rival, the Panthers remained in a strong spot to seal a section title and make a deep run in the playoffs. Before their battle Jan. 21 against Bethel Park, the Panthers were tied for first place in the division with a 6-1 slate. Overall, USC is 10-4.
“The good news,” Holzer said after the loss to Lebo, “is we are still in first place. While the streak ended, we are ready to start anew. We know we didn’t shoot well and we know we have to get better.”
Against the Blue Devils, USC shot a miserable seven of 16 from the free throw line. The Panthers also missed eight easy layups.
One reason for the slow start on offense this season – the Panthers are averaging 56 points per game – is cohesion. Because of extracurricular activities and extended fall sports participation, the players have had little time to bond.
“We haven’t been all together until recently,” said Holzer, “and it takes time offensively. But, once we get going,” he trailed off.
Holzer anticipates his Panthers will again be contenders, because they are currently playing strong defense. USC limits the opposition to 47.9 points per game, lowest in the section and third in all of Quad-A.
“We’ve played good team defense,” said Holzer, whose teams have qualified for the WPIAL tournament nine times in the past 10 years. “Our half-court defense has been the key to where we are, but it’s not where we are going to be.”
Despite having to replace four starters, including leading scorer Jordan Grabowski, who is playing at Penn State-Behrend, the Panthers are halfway toward another 20-win season. Last year, they were 20-4 and WPIAL semifinalists.
“We always play a ton of seniors,” said Holzer. “We pride ourselves in the program that we’ve built. When we graduate seniors, then the next class steps up. It’s an all new year, but our expectations do not change.”
As it has been in his past 19 seasons as head coach, Holzer plays his veterans. In fact, seven of his top nine players are seniors.
J.J. Conn leads the club in scoring with an 18-point average. He tossed in 15 against Lebo.
The senior gained the attention of schools like Dayton and Lafayette for his prowess as a linebacker on the conference championship football club. Catholic University, where his former teammate Steve Limberiou is excelling, is interested in Conn’s hoop abilities.
Holzer noted that it does take time to get back into basketball condition from football but credits Conn. “He loves basketball,” Holzer said. “J.J. is just starting to find his stride. He’s getting in his groove.”
Conor Gallagher has found his groove running the USC offense. The senior is the point guard as well as one of the team’s top defenders. He fired in a game-high 17 points against Lebo.
“Conor has grit and determination and speed and quickness on defense,” Holzer said. “He inspires us on offense with his ability to drive.”
Identical twins, Nick and Zachary Staley, don’t drive. At 6-5 and 6-6, they are towers underneath for the Panthers. Will Ross, a 6-3 center, is another enforcer in the paint.
Citing their nicknaming themselves with each other’s surname, Holzer said of the twins, “They have that funny, quiet sense of humor.”
Thomas Steve, meanwhile, has that whatever-it-takes-to-win attitude. A state champion in golf, the senior gives the Panthers a lift from the outside with his 3-point accuracy. The Notre Dame recruit is also a member of the baseball team. He epitomizes the type of players on the USC squad, says Holzer.
“Steve’s a great kid,” Holzer said. “He only cares about winning. Steve is like all my guys. They have a quite confidence about them. If they do what they are supposed to do, then we’ll be successful. They rely upon each other.”
Off the bench, USC relies upon senior guard A.J. Gross as well as junior Marcus McGinniss and sophomore Andrew Wheeler. Zach Cherup completes the talented senior class while Jordan Conn represents the future as the sophomore is a 6-2 swingman for the Panthers.
As the second half of section action heats up, and all but the winless Hillers from Trinity remain in playoff contention, the Panthers have the added pressure of being the defending section champion. Holzer is hopeful his players’ past successes on the court and in other sports will be a plus.
“We have players that take everything in stride and that helps them deal with pressure,” said Holzer.
Ahead for USC is the pressure of playing away from home. Including yesterday’s battle with Bethel Park, the Panthers play five of their second-half section games on the road. After hosting the Big Macs on Jan. 24, they travel to Canon-McMillan Jan. 27. USC visits Baldwin, Jan. 28, Peters Township, Jan. 31 and Mt. Lebanon, Feb. 7. The Panthers host Moon Feb. 4. They host Chartiers Valley, the top-ranked Class AAA team, in an exhibition on the final night of regular season play, Feb. 10.
“It’s going to be an interesting second half,” predicted Holzer. “The teams in this section are all about the same. The games are fun because anybody can win or lose.”
Holzer noted how a team like Lebo is getting better every game and how young players like Jonny David, who scorched the Panthers for 15 points, are really improved. That causes improved competition ahead for all teams in the section.
“Our games in section are low-scoring, great defensive games. They may not be fun to watch,” he admitted. “But, I like our changes because of the way we play half-court defense.
“Our best days are ahead of us,” Holzer concluded.