Canon-McMillan gains respect in basketball
Heading into back-to-back battles with Upper St. Clair, the Canon-McMillan boys’ basketball team found itself in an unprecedented position. Instead of being doormats in the division, the Big Macs enjoy a role as contenders. They also entertain the possibility of capturing the school’s first section title in nearly 40 years.
And though the Big Macs dropped both decisions to the Panthers, dropping their first encounter, 56-47, Jan. 24, and falling Jan. 27 in the second showdown, 66-50, they have garnered respect.
“We are not the Snowball Dance game. The one where the announcer says the dance will be held after the game in the cafeteria,” said Rick Bell after his team’s hard-fought defeat on USC’s court Jan. 24.
Danny Holzer concurred. “They are a formidable opponent,” the USC skipper said of the Big Macs. “They battle. They play hard. They are a gritty team.”
And while Canon-Mac adopted the Clint Hurdle approach after losses—“shower and wash it off”—the Big Macs, however, don’t rinse away the grit that has garnered them recognition as a serious playoff contender during the stretch run.
With four league games remaining, the Big Macs are now tied with Peters Township for the final playoff spot. They sport a 6-4 section slate and 10-7 overall record.
USC sits atop the league standings with an 8-2 mark. Overall the Panthers are 12-5. Bethel Park (7-3, 12-4) and Mt. Lebanon (6-3, 8-9) follow in second and third place.
“(The first time we played them) we were in a desperate situation,” said Holzer.
Indeed, the Panthers were coming off a demoralizing defeat at Bethel Park, 72-48. That loss dropped USC into the initial tie for first place in the section with Canon-Mac. Plus, the Panthers were then looking at road games this week against the Big Macs, at Baldwin and at Peters Township coming up. “There’s a logjam between first and fifth place,” said Holzer, noting that four teams qualify for postseason play. “Staying in first place was critical.”
Critical to USC’s success against the Big Macs was the play of the Panthers’ seniors. Thomas Steve, Connor Gallagher and JJ Conn triggered USC’s first win.
Steve buried four, 3-point field goals to finish with a game-high 12 tallies. His long-range shot with under 3:45 to play ignited an 8-0 run and vaulted the Panthers into the lead for good. With 1:54 to play, USC lead, 51-41.
Gallagher tossed in 11 points, eight in the decisive fourth quarter. The point guard connected on all six of his free throws, including four after Alex Hammers had pulled the Big Macs within five points, 52-47, with his 3-point field goal with 1:21 to play.
Conn exploded for 10, second-half points. His 3-point play with 1:03 to play in the third quarter not only were his first scores of the game but also snapped a 33-33 deadlock.
Conn spearheaded the second triumph over the Big Macs. He fired in 25 points. Nick Staley pitched in 15 markers.
“We are so senior-oriented and focused,” said Holzer. “They understand the situation.”
In the first encounter, Sam Bohn appeared to have the situation under control for the Big Macs. He led all scorers with 20 points. He scored 16 in the first half to keep Canon-Mac within three points, 26-23, at intermission. Bohn, along with Costa Karanikos and Britton Beachy, were all held to nine points in the second clash.
“Sam is so heady. A smart, smart player,” said Bell. “He takes care of the ball. He’s a coach out there on the floor. I love him to death. I’m glad he is on my team.”
To keep pace with Bohn, USC needed four, 3-pointers in the first frame of the first match-up. Despite Bohn’s 11 markers, the Big Macs trailed, 16-15, after one frame. In addition to Gallagher and Steve, Andrew Wheeler had the hot hand with a trey in the first frame. His 5-point spree launched USC into the lead, 24-15, with 4:17 to go in the second stanza. Wheeler finished with eight points.
“Give Canon-McMillan and Coach (Rick) Bell credit,” Holzer said. “They are playing inspired basketball. If we did not play well in the second half, we would not have won.”
Since a 3-4 start to the season, Canon-McMillan has been winning for many reasons but Luke Blanock has been the inspiration. Projected as a starter, the junior forward fell ill a few days before the 2013-14 campaign commenced. Diagnosed with cancer, he had surgery to remove a tumor. He is currently undergoing chemotherapy treatments.
“So far he has passed all the tests. At this point, he is beating the disease,” said Bell of Blanock, who averaged 15 points per game last year. “His outlook looks very good and he’s hopeful to play again. One of the doctors isn’t so confident but Luke’s reply is ‘we’ll see about that’.
“Luke’s a heck of a player,” Bell continued. “He’s part of this team. Not just somebody on the sidelines. He’s been the impetus for us. As sad a situation as it is, it brought our team together.”
As motivational as the Blanock story is, Bell admits that the Big Macs have not achieved without talent. “Honestly one of the keys (to our success) has been finding out one of our young men had cancer. It’s hard to be selfish and self-centered when you see what (Luke) is dealing with,” Bell explained, “but you have to have the guys who can play. Obviously you have to have talent.”
Also at the beginning of the year, Canon-Mac had talent it couldn’t tap. Because of a lingering football injury where he suffered hairline fractures to his shin, Jordan Smith did not return to the roster until Dec. 27. Though the sophomore center returned to the line-up and though the defense held the Colts scoreless in the third quarter, the Big Macs dropped a 56-50 decision to Chartiers Valley, the No. 1 ranked Class AAA club in the WPIAL.
At 3-4 overall, the Big Macs had bottomed out. In addition to CV, Canon-Mac had lost to then-undefeated Washington, 57-53, talented Beaver Falls, 58-45, and Bethel Park, 60-49, in the Section 4 opener. Yet their exuberant head coach predicted better days ahead. All signs pointed to the Big Macs’ current resurgence explained the ever-optimist Bell.
Admitting, indeed, that he is a dreamer, Bell explained that the signs pointed to this. “We were right there in all those games. We had no Luke and no Jacob.”
The Big Macs, however, had Bohn and much, much more. A junior point guard, Bohn leads the team with a 15.8 scoring average. He also ranks first in assists with four per game and a 5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. In a 62-46 win against Baldwin, he had nine assists to go along with a 16 tallies.
“Sam’s our glue guy. The straw that stirs the drink,” said Bell.
“I’ve never had a point guard like this before,” continued Bell, pointing out Bohn had only one turnover against Chartiers Valley’s vaunted, high-pressure defense. “Sam is very, very good and he’s very, very smart. He has a high basketball IQ.”
Alex Hammers on the other hand has a high accuracy rate. A ‘deadly shooter’ the junior follows Bohn in scoring with a 14.2 average. Of the No. 2 guard, Bell said, “Alex is a catch-and-shoot guy but he’s working real hard on his shot off the dribble.”
Though a freshman, Britton Beachy has worked hard to earn his starting spot. He filled while senior Costa Karanikos nursed a tender Achilles tendon. Both can shoot off the dribble, says Bell. Beachy and Karanikos average 8.5 points per game. Karanikos leads the team in rebounding.
Bell is proud of Karanikos. He represents the team’s attitude. When he returned from his injury, he did not resume his starting role. “He could have developed an attitude. He could have been upset. But, he’s not. He gets it. It’s the Luke (Blanock) thing,” pointed out Bell.
“We have kids who say ‘coach, whatever we have to do to be successful.’ It’s awesome. We remind them of our goals each day in practice. You don’t know how great it is as coach to have these kids buy into what you are saying and believe in.”
Players such as Carson Miller, Connor Helinski, Jake Papi and Malik Brown also buy into what Bell is selling.
Miller is the first guard off the bench when Karanikos exits the game. What makes the freshman ‘unique’ says Bell is his perimeter play. “He’ll play inside if we need him. Plus, he’s valuable from the perimeter.”
A power forward, Helinski is a junior. “He has embraced his role the most. He’s a screener, picker and rebounder. No particular play is designed around him. He doesn’t have a problem with that,” said Bell.
While Papi can play either the No. 4 or 5 spot, Bell has ‘pigeon-holed’ Brown into the center slot. Sophomores: Austin Berger, Domenic Eannace, Mike Trax, Matt Mish, a standout pitcher on the baseball team, are also contributors for the Big Macs as are freshman Kyle Wilson and R.J. Bell, the coach’s son.
While the Big Macs work on finishing their shots and sharpening their free-throw shooting skills, they are aware of their unusual situation. After last night game with Trinity, Canon-McMillan travels to Moon Jan. 31. The Big Macs host Mt. Lebanon Feb. 4 and close out section action at rival Peters Township at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 7.
“We don’t have trouble getting to the rim but we are not always finishing and while we have been shooting free throws well,” Bell said, citing a 16-for-20 showing from the line against Baldwin, “it’s down the stretch that we miss. In close games, you have to step up and knock them down.
“Our No. 1 goal is always to make the playoffs,” Bell continued. “With the way we were playing, two weeks ago, I though, ‘hey, maybe we can win this league’ but we can’t get all high and mighty with ourselves. We have to remember what we’ve done to get us to this point.”