|Big Macs junior Jake Papi|
Friday night’s battle for first place in Section 4-AAA between Upper St. Clair and Canon-McMillan did not disappoint.
The Panthers’ 56-47 win – a nine-point margin of victory – does not give the matchup justice. This was a game between two strong perimeter shooting teams who entered Friday tied for first place in the section.
Canon-McMillan has succeeded this season largely on the play of guards Alex Hammers, Sam Bohn and Britton Beachy, but it is not the trio’s ability to score that has the Big Macs competing for the top spot in the section.
Canon-McMillan is has one of the smallest lineups in Class AAAA. The tallest player in its starting lineup Friday night was 6-4 sophomore forward Jordan Smith. When you stack Upper St. Clair’s lineup against the Big Macs, one would think the Panthers would be able to succeed driving into the lane for easy points. Upper St. Clair’s leading scorer, senior forward J.J. Conn, entered the game averaging 16.4 points per game and his 6-3 frame is accompanied by a physical nature under the basket.
Allowing post players to score does not coincide with the brand of basketball Canon-McMillan plays and Conn’s performance suffered because the Big Macs have made a point to stop interior scoring threats like Conn.
Conn did not score a point in the first half and was held without a field goal until 1:03 remaining in the third quarter when he drove to the basket for a lay-in and was fouled. The ensuing three-point play was just one of three two-point field goals the senior registered in the Panthers’ win.
The key to Canon-McMillan stopping Conn was the relentless play of its guards – Hammers, Bohn and Beachy. The three are told by head coach Rick Bell to assist the team’s smaller “big men” inside. They helped Smith, Connor Helinski, Costa Karanikos, Malik Brown and Jake Papi contain Conn throughout the game. This did allow Upper St. Clair to drive to the basket and dish the basketball out to its guards for uncontested three-point shots, but one would think adjustments will be in the works for the Big Macs’ rematch with the Panthers on Monday night at Canon-McMillan High School.
The five-man rotation has played unselfish this season and is rotated throughout the game. When I spoke to Bell prior to Friday night’s matchup, he attributed a great deal of the team’s success to his front court and the way they have handled themselves against physically superior competition.
“In almost every single game in our section, we are undersized,” Bell said on Wednesday night. “That was our concern at the beginning of the season. Were we going to get hurt on the interior? The kids, our forwards, have done a great job because we rely on them collectively offensively, but we really rely on them defensively and I have to hand it to our guards for helping them out.”
The Big Macs’ man-to-man defense has been successful so far this season and it will be interesting to see how Canon-McMillan responds on Monday night. Playing a section-rival in back-to-back games just three days apart is not common. The two teams were originally scheduled to face each other earlier in the season, but Upper St. Clair had to reschedule in order to play a tournament in Las Vegas during December.
“In my 19 years of coaching, I can’t remember having to do that,” Upper St. Clair head coach Danny Holzer said following Friday’s game. “We will enjoy this win for sure. It’s a big one for us and we’ll have to get ready to play on Monday.”