Upper St. Clair boys motivated to make run in WPIAL playoffs

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Monday, January 7, 2019 | 9:33 PM


Upper St. Clair’s boys basketball team started off 2019 the same way it finished 2018.

The Panthers remained undefeated with a hard-fought 63-54 section win Jan. 4 at Baldwin.

Behind 6-foot-4 senior forward Tanner Gensler’s game-high 26 points, the USC hoopsters improved to 11-0 overall and 2-0 in Section 2-6A.

“We play together on both ends of the court. These kids really like each other and share the ball and it shows,” USC coach Danny Holzer said. “We have a plus-73 in assists-to-turnovers ratio. That has been the key to our success.

“Our expectations at the start of the year were to try and improve every day to be the best team we could be. Our goals, as always, are to have a winning team, make the playoffs and advance as far as we can. At this point, we are meeting those expectations and hopefully we can continue.”

Gensler said the Panthers had an early motivation from the season’s onset.

“Everyone else had low expectations for us,” Gensler said. “We used that as motivation and came together and made a team goal of making a WPIAL run. We play well together and know how to handle adversity when it comes.

“We focus on one game at a time, and we want to keep making this run and turn it into something special.”

The Panthers’ unblemished record includes a unique three-day trip Dec. 20-22 to the Bahamas to compete in the Atlantis Beach Bash.

In Nassau, the Panthers defeated in succession Doris Johnson (Nassau), 73-62; St. Francis (Ontario), 91-42; and Erie Cathedral Prep, 66-59.

“Overall, the trip was a great experience, and was highlighted by our team bonding, and our team swimming with dolphins,” Holzer said. “We got to spend a lot of time together, and everyone really enjoyed the complex and surroundings.”

Gensler said he and his teammates enjoyed the water parks the most, and also relished the team bonding.

“It was one of the greatest trips I have ever been on,” Gensler said. “The water parks were crazy, and just spending time with the team was great. Coach treated us really good.”

USC returned from the Bahamas to claim a holiday tournament championship Dec. 27-28 at Peters Township, rolling past Washington and South Fayette by scores of 81-51 and 69-52.

The Panthers quickly opened some eyes around Western Pennsylvania this year.

Following an 11-11 regular season and 52-51 loss to Penn Hills in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs last year, USC was unranked and unheralded coming into the 2018-19 season.

By mid-December, the Panthers were 4-0 and had jumped into the Tribune-Review rankings. This week, they are ranked No. 2. And USC was chosen as the first Trib HSSN boys basketball team of the week.

The Panthers’ most impressive win in December was a 51-48 nonsection decision on the road against Pine-Richland, the 2017 Class 6A champion and 2018 runner-up.

The Panthers are ranked behind Latrobe, with Pine-Richland, Mt. Lebanon and Butler rounding out the top five.

USC’s starting lineup consists of Gensler, 6-3 junior guard/forward Andrew Casey, 6-0 senior guard Luke Geisler, 6-1 senior guard Chris Pantelis and 5-11 senior guard Benjamin Sandusky.

Top reserves include Luke Gensler, David Pantelis and Ethan Dahlem, all sophomore guards.

USC stymied the host Highlanders last week in part due to an aggressive full-court press.

“Typically, we have been a half-court, man-to-man team,” Holzer said. “We are adjusting to the type of players we have. We haven’t had a lot of size the last few years, so we began adjusting to a full- and half-court pressure team. We feel like we have good depth which helps us to keep pressure on the opponent.”

USC’s chief catalyst on offense is Tanner Gensler, a two-year starter and three-year letterman who is averaging 21.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.

Gensler netted a career-high 42 points (“the best game I’ve played”) in his team’s section win in overtime against Peters Township

“Tanner is a forward who also has guard skills. He can score inside and outside,” Holzer said. “He has been a great team leader, as well. I am really proud of him.

“He has been part of our program since the first grade. He is truly a program player that has worked really hard to become a great player and person. He is one of our four seniors who have all done a great job. The four seniors are all captains who have provided great leadership for us.”

Two other leading scorers are Chris Pantelis, at 13.6 ppg, and Luke Gensler, Tanner’s brother who is averaging 11 ppg. Panatelis scored 10 points against Baldwin while the younger Gensler chipped in with eight.

“We regrouped after halftime and played the way we know how,” said Tanner Gensler, who peppered in nine third-quarter points after racking up 14 in the first half against Baldwin. “We forced turnovers and converted them into points.”

USC returns to section action Tuesday with a home game against Canon-McMillan (7-4, 1-1), followed by a road test Jan. 11 at Bethel Park (8-3, 0-2).

The Panthers end the first half of section play Jan. 15 against long-time rival Mt. Lebanon (10-2, 2-0).

“Our section is really tough,” Holzer said. ”We have some tough games coming up.”

Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.

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