CANONSBURG – Canon-McMillan’s boys basketball team was viewed early in the season as a long shot to compete in Section 4-AAA.
Despite having only one senior on the roster, Big Macs head coach Rick Bell did not lower his expectations. He expects his team to win and entering Friday’s game with Upper St. Clair, Canon-McMillan was tied for first place in the section.
The Big Macs had a chance at redeeming their late-game lapse when they hosted USC Monday night, but this time around, the Panthers’ leading scorer had something to say about Canon-McMillan’s attempt to reclaim its spot in the standings.
Upper St. Clair senior J. J. Conn scored 25 points to lead the Panthers to a 66-50 win over Canon-McMillan and giving the Panthers firm control of first place in the section.
“Nobody outside of our program had high expectations for us and did not think we’d be in the playoff hunt at this point in the season,” Bell said. “We are a young team, but that is a reason, not an excuse. We aren’t changing our approach. They are the defending champs for a reason and on Friday, we were just the new kid on the block nipping at their heels.”
Again, the Big Macs (6-4, 10-7) gave Upper St. Clair a tough, competitive game, but while Canon-McMillan’s guards excelled on the perimeter Friday, they struggled mightily against the Panthers’ man-to-man defense in the rematch.
Upper St. Clair (8-2, 12-5) held a 42-35 lead at the start of the fourth quarter with Canon-McMillan threatening a comeback. Conn had other plans. The 6-3 senior forward was relentless in the lane; causing the Big Macs to scramble every time he dribbled and drove for easy points. His two foul shots and a three-point play less than three-minutes later sparked a 9-0 run to begin the fourth quarter. The Panthers hit 14 of 16 free throws in the final eight minutes to seal the win.
“They are a very good team with a very, very good defense,” Bell said. “We still control our own destiny, but someone has to beat (Upper St. Clair) for us to have a chance to win the section. With the way they’re playing, I’m not sure if I see that happening.”
The Big Macs opened the second half a driving layup by freshman Britton Beachy, but Upper St. Clair answered with six straight points to increase its lead to 11. Canon-McMillan charged back with a hook shot by Malik Brown and two free throws by Beachy, but the Panthers matched the Big Macs’ scoring in the third quarter to keep their seven-point cushion. Beachy and senior Costa Karanikos each scored nine points to lead Canon-McMillan in scoring.
Canon-McMillan did not begin the first half as planned. The Big Macs could not find the open man against USC’s man-to-man defense; forcing turnovers on their first two possessions of the game. While the Panthers’ leading scorer, Conn, was held scoreless in the first half of Friday’s matchup; he was dominant in Monday’s first half – scoring 15 points in the first eight minutes.
Prior to both teams taking the court pregame warm-ups, Upper St. Clair’s basketball boosters extended a helping hand to the family of Luke Blanock. The Panthers’ brass donated $500 to Luke Strong festivities, which featured T-shirt sales and other fundraising efforts to aid the Blanocks with medical bills. Upper St. Clair senior Will Ross, whose mother is a cancer survivor, presented Blanock with the check. Blanock had been hospitalized during a round of chemotherapy and was released in time to attend the game.
Canon-McMillan’s loss clouds the playoff picture in Section 4-AAAA. Both Peters Township (6-4, 9-8) and the Big Macs have four losses in section play and record-low temperatures in the month of January postponed another key match up with playoff ramifications. The Indians were scheduled to host Bethel Park at home tonight at 7:30 p.m., but with the cancellation of classes, the game has been rescheduled for Wednesday night at the same time. The Big Macs’ matchup with Trinity schedule for tonight has been rescheduled for Feb. 5 at 7:30.
“These next few weeks are huge,” Bell said. “We may be out of the running for the section title, but at this point, we have to play for seeding. Being the second seed in the section is a lot different than entering as the fourth seed. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves for long because Moon won’t be feeling sorry for us when we play them on Friday.”