Lebo, USC boys in familiar territory
Familiar surroundings may not give Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair an advantage in their first-round WPIAL Quad-A playoff games, but the boys’ basketball clubs will have support in their quest for victories.
While Mt. Lebanon (11-1) faces Hempfield (20-2) at Canon-McMillan, USC (16-6) battles Gateway (13-9) at Baldwin. Both games are set for 8 p.m. Feb. 19.
Lebo and USC have both played previously at these sites because both the Big Macs and the Highlanders are Section 4 opponents.
“It could be an advantage because we are familiar with the site, but in a playoff situation it’s not,” said Dan Holzer, who noted his team has played at Baldwin only once. “Travel-wise, it’s nice because we’ll have a good fan base.
Lebo floor boss Joe David agreed. “I am not sure playing (at CM) will be an advantage, but I’m happy that it’s not too far away so that our fans can get there,” he said. “We are looking forward to the challenge.”
The Spartans, indeed, are a challenge for the Blue Devils as they are the Section 1 champions with an undefeated mark of 12-0. The Spartans lone losses this season have been to Greensburg Central Catholic, 71-69, and Lincoln Park, 94-76. GCC is the No. 2 seed in Class AA and Lincoln Park, which has lost only once this season to New Castle, is the No. 1 seed in Class A.
Hempfield, which is the No. 6 seed in the tournament, boasts Kason Harrell. The 6-3 junior is the top scorer in Quad-A and the No. 8 point man in the WPIAL. A guard, Harrell averages 23.9 points per game.”
“Kason is an excellent player,” said David. “Stopping him will be a priority.”
Contending with Hempfield’s size also factors into Lebo’s approach to the game. The Spartans boast seven players over 6-3, including junior center Tony Pilato at 6-7.
“They are a very good team with good size,” noted David. “Rebounding the basketball against their size,” he added was another priority for the Blue Devils.
Lebo relies upon 6-7 junior Patrick Ehland and 6-6 senior Matthew Collins along with 6-3 senior Max Li for rebounding.
For Hempfield, Jonny David, the coach’s son, is the concern. The 6-1 junior averages 17.2 points per game. David helps run the offense with sophomore Eddie Jenkins.
Despite a .500 record, the Blue Devils are a team on the rise. They won six of their last eight games and finished third in Section 4.
Meanwhile, USC enters the playoffs as the No. 5 seed and the Section 4 champion with a 12-2 mark. But the Panthers will have their hands full with Gateway.
Though the Gators finished tied for third place in Section 2 with Fox Chapel with a 9-5 slate, they are a formidable opponent. Gateway boasts three Division I football prospects in Delvon Randall (Michigan State) and Temple-bound Brennan Thrift and Montae Nicholson. Randall leads the Gators in scoring with a 16.9 average.
“Without question,” Holzer said, “they are the most athletic team that we have faced in two years. They have three guys around 6-5 and (Shomari) Thomas is so quick,” he added of Gateway’s point guard.
Holzer also noted that the Gators’ overall record of 13-9 is misleading as a handful of the defeats have occurred when players were on recruiting visits. Plus, Thomas missed around eight games because of an injury.
“We have to play a real great game to beat them,” Holzer said.
Holzer cited two keys to success. USC must limit transition baskets by Gateway and control the boards, particularly on defense. “We can’t let them fastbreak and we have to limit them to one shot,” he explained. “Our forwards have to do a good job on the boards. If we can control the rebounds, we have a shot.
USC will rely upon the Staley twins, Nick and Zack, along with Will Ross and J.J. Conn for power on the boards while Conor Gallagher operates the offense.
While Conn leads the Panthers in scoring with a 15.9 average, Thomas Steve and Andrew Wheeler are threats to bury the shots from beyond the arc.