South Xtra: After cool start, USC catches fire

Brad Everett's High School Basketball Notebook

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Upper St. Clair wasn't looking so hot when it dropped to 3-3 after suffering a 38-17 loss to Bethel Park a month and a half ago, but the Panthers are now one of the hottest teams in the WPIAL.

The Panthers have won 10 games in a row, are ranked No. 5 in Class AAAA and are a serious contender to advance to the WPIAL championship game.

Upper St. Clair (14-3, 9-1) put any doubts to rest as to how good it is by earning likely its best two wins of the season last week. The Panthers first avenged their earlier loss to Bethel Park by defeating the Black Hawks, 63-50, on Jan. 22. That victory pushed the Panthers into a first-place tie with the Black Hawks in Section 4. Then, after Bethel was upset by Peters Township Tuesday, the Panthers stood alone in first place.

On Sunday, the Panthers got a big non-section win against No. 4 Gateway, 59-56, in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Classic at La Roche College.

"Obviously, they were two big wins because they were two top five teams almost the entire season," Upper St. Clair coach Danny Holzer said. "We found out that we have a chance to be a pretty good team down the stretch.

"This team is really starting to believe in itself. To win 10 in a row in this section and to beat Gateway, that speaks volumes."

The last time Upper St. Clair was on a streak like this, the Panthers won 12 in a row on two occasions in 2004-05. That team, led by current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, won the WPIAL championship.

Holzer, who won his 300th career game earlier this season, said he sees similarities between this team and the 2004-05 squad.

"This team reminds me of the 2004-05 team in that they had really good chemistry," Holzer said. "That was Sean Lee's team. That team worked really hard in practice and really competed, but they also really liked each other off the court. This team is like that."

A year after missing out on the postseason -- Upper St. Clair went 12-10 but finished in sixth place in the section a season ago -- the Panthers have used a stingy defense and an unselfish offense to quickly rebound. The Panthers allow 47.3 points per game.

Upper St. Clair has three primary scorers, senior guards Jordan Grabowski and Joel Klein, and junior forward J.J. Conn. Grabowski leads the Panthers in scoring with 16.8 points per game, while Conn has really come on in the past few games. Conn scored a game-high 22 points against both Bethel Park and Gateway.

"J.J. is a football player. He's a tough kid. He helps us out on the defensive end because of that," Holzer said. "Offensively, he's a 6-foot-3 forward, but he can shoot it. He can step out and shoot the 3-pointer, and that provides a whole different dimension for us."

The Panthers finish section play with games against Peters Township, Canon-McMillan, Moon and Mt. Lebanon.

Serra hanging tough

Heading into the season, there was uncertainty as to how Serra Catholic would fare in its first go-round in Class AA, this after building one of the premier programs in Class A over the past decade.

It turns out that the Eagles have acclimated just fine to their new surroundings.

Serra has locked up a WPIAL playoff berth in Section 3. Despite losing to Jeannette, 63-56, Tuesday, the Eagles (12-4, 5-3) remain in third-place. Their only section losses have come to Jeannette (15-2, 8-1) twice and first-place Greensburg Central Catholic (17-1, 9-0).

Considering Greensburg Central Catholic (No. 2) and Jeannette (No. 4) are ranked among the Post-Gazette's top five teams in Class AA, Serra is hanging in there against some of the WPIAL elite.

"Serra has a great program, a great tradition and certainly an excellent team this year," Greensburg Central Catholic coach Greg Bisignani said. "They've made our conference a lot more competitive."

Weekly watch

Here are a few boys games to keep an eye on this week:

• Bethel Park at Mt. Lebanon, Friday, 7:30 p.m. -- Bethel Park and Upper St. Clair have clinched playoff berths, but Mt. Lebanon is looking to separate itself from a logjam of teams jockeying for the final two playoff spots in Class AAAA Section 4. Avenging an earlier 59-46 loss to Bethel Park would go a long way in the Blue Devils securing a playoff berth for the fifth season in a row.

• South Fayette at Montour, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. -- A matchup of teams tied for second place in Class AAA Section 5. South Fayette (11-6, 7-2) and Montour (14-4, 7-2) trail section-leader Chartiers Valley (16-2, 9-1) by one game in the loss column, but the Lions and Colts will meet again in the section finale. South Fayette topped Montour, 53-46, on Jan. 11. South Fayette's Evan Bonnaure scored 23 points, while Montour's Devin Wilson had 21.

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