South Xtra: Panthers' 'joy ride' comes to close

BOYS BASKETBALL

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Last season the Upper St. Clair boys' basketball team missed the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, but with a senior-dominated group this season, the Panthers were not about to miss the postseason two years in a row.

Instead, they won more games in a row than any team in the program's history.

Under coach Danny Holzer, the Panthers bounced back from a 12-10 campaign and sixth-place finish in Class AAAA Section 4 to finish the regular season 19-3 and win the Section 4 title with a 13-1 record. The season was highlighted by a 17-game winning streak that extended from Dec. 21 all the way to a WPIAL first-round playoff win against Norwin, 57-56.

Upper St. Clair's WPIAL playoff run ended after a 44-34 loss to Seneca Valley in the WPIAL quarterfinals.

Before Wednesday, the Panthers were still eligible for the PIAA playoffs -- five WPIAL teams qualify, the four semifinalists and the team that lost to the champion in the quarterfinals -- but they need Seneca Valley to win the WPIAL title. The Raiders were scheduled to play No. 1 seed New Castle Wednesday night.

The previous record for a winning streak was set in Holzer's first season when his team won 14 in a row. In 2005 with Sean Lee on the team, the Panthers won 12 in a row. Holzer also recalls other double-digit winning streaks, but never 17.

Unlike other PIAA districts, the WPIAL does not have play-in games. If this were another district, Upper St. Clair might be getting prepared to play another quarterfinal loser for a right to reach the PIAA playoffs.

Holzer has been on both sides of the equation. This season he is at the mercy of Seneca Valley, which entered Wednesday's game as a decided underdog against New Castle. But two years ago when his team lost to Gateway in the quarterfinals, the Panthers reached the PIAA playoffs by virtue of the Gators winning a WPIAL title.

Still Holzer would rather a team earn its way into the PIAA field.

"I wish they would have play-in games," Holzer said. "I think this time of year, playing a doubleheader, it would only take two days, a Tuesday and Wednesday. It could be a home site, there could be some big crowds. The more the kids compete, the better it is."

Upper St. Clair can make a great case that once a team gets second life in the playoffs, anything can happen.

The Panthers struggled mightily in their playoff loss to Seneca Valley. They went scoreless until the 4:44 mark of the second quarter. They eventually fought back and cut it to a 32-30 game with 2:35 left in the game before losing, 44-34.

The last time Upper St. Clair had as much trouble scoring was on Dec. 18 at Bethel Park during a 38-17 loss. The very next game, three days later against Canon-McMillan, the longest winning streak in program history began.

"Actually, we had a ton of fun with [the winning streak]," Holzer said.

There were plenty of close calls along the way, including one-point victories against Mt. Lebanon and Peters Township. Upper St. Clair avenged its only section loss with a 63-50 win against Bethel Park.

"We didn't start talking about the streak until it got to about 10 games," Holzer said. "We just embraced it and said 'Let's keep this thing going.' Each game we won, we got closer to the section championship.

"We didn't feel like we had any pressure -- this team really enjoys each other. Sometimes it can be tough to think about but it had the opposite effect."

The Panthers were led this season by senior guard Jordan Grabowski and junior forward J.J. Conn. Grabowski and Conn led the team in scoring, averaging 18 and 14 points per game, respectively.

Senior guard Joel Klein hit more than 60 3-pointers this season. Grabowski and Klein are two of six seniors on the roster but even with the graduation attrition, the Panthers should be loaded with talent again next year.

Conn returns along with players who received starting minutes, junior point guard Conor Gallagher, junior forwards Will Ross and Nick Staley and junior guard Thomas Steve. In addition to that group, the Panthers had a strong junior varsity team.

hsbasketball


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