North/South Xtra: Seneca Valley, Upper St. Clair meet in battle of hot teams

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Upper St. Clair was faced with a familiar situation Saturday in its WPIAL Class AAAA first-round playoff game against Norwin

The fourth-seeded Panthers, who entered the contest on a 16-game winning streak, trailed the No. 13 Knights by two and had possession of the ball with less than 20 seconds left when USC coach Danny Holzer called a timeout.

"Six or seven of the games during our win streak have come down to the last possession or two," Holzer said. "So it wasn't anything new to us."

In fact, the Panthers faced almost the exact same situation Jan. 15 at Mt. Lebanon. Upper St. Clair had the ball down by two points in overtime when Joel Klein hit a 3-pointer with five seconds remaining for a 51-50 win.

Klein seemed like a good choice to receive the ball again Saturday, considering he had already converted eight 3-pointers in the game.

But Holzer put the ball in the hands of leading scorer Jordan Grabowski.

"I told Jordan, 'Hey, if you get a lane, take it because we only need a two, but if not, take the perimeter shot or find an open teammate. He is such a team player and we had Joel and J.J. [Conn] on the wings."

Grabowski ended up drilling a 3-pointer with 2.4 seconds left to play to give the Panthers (20-3) their 17th consecutive victory, the longest win streak in school history.

To continue the steak, Upper St. Clair will have to beat arguably the most impressive team in Round 1 of the WPIAL tournament, regardless of class -- Seneca Valley (16-7).

The 12th-seeded Raiders handed No. 5 Central Catholic its second worst WPIAL playoff loss in school history, 72-41, Saturday.

"My first thought when I saw that score was, 'Wow,'" Holzer said. "Because Central Catholic is pretty darn good. Seneca Valley is good, too, and I actually thought they would win, but not like that. It was eye-opening."

Seneca Valley's win against the Vikings was an upset in seed-only. Central Catholic did win the Section 2 title while Seneca Valley finished fourth in Section 3. The three teams, however, that finished ahead of the Raiders -- New Castle, North Allegheny and Hampton -- were seeded first, second and third, respectively, in the WPIAL Class AAAA tournament.

All but one of the Raiders' losses this season came in the section, with the other defeat coming at the hands of Class AAA No. 2 seed Mars Area.

Seneca Valley coach Victor Giannotta said he wasn't upset with the team's seeding, but knew that his squad was dangerous.

"I don't think anyone wanted to play us," Giannotta said. "Ask Central Catholic."

The key for Seneca Valley is the team's senior leadership. Three of the team's top scorers -- Easton Bazzoli, R.J. McCauley and Alex Snyder -- are all in their final year of high school.

It has helped the Raiders get through tough stretches in their Section 3 schedule, such as when the team lost four consecutive league games toward the end of the season to New Castle, North Allegheny, Hampton and Pine-Richland, which didn't make the playoffs but was undefeated outside of section play.

"It all starts with the seniors," Giannotta said. "They do the right thing and everyone follows. They're not vocal, but they lead by example."

USC is not short on seniors either, with six on the roster, including Grabowski and Klein.

The leadership should help the teams stay focused as both try to maintain their momentum during a full week off before their quarterfinal showdown Saturday at a site and time to be determined.

Holzer said he gave his team Sunday and Monday off, hoping the players are soaking in the fun of making it this deep into the season.

Meanwhile, Giannotta joked that he may work in some different drills this week.

"I don't know, maybe we'll have them play dodgeball," Giannotta said.

It may help his team prepare for what figures to be a tough, physical battle.

"It's going to be interesting," Holzer said. "I could see it being a possession-by-possession grind. It could go either way, but hopefully we win by at least one."



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