There’s just something about the Upper St. Clair vs. Mt. Lebanon rivalry in boys basketball that no other atmosphere in WPIAL sports can match.
No, it’s not quite the high school equivalent of Duke vs. North Carolina, but it might be the closest thing you’ll find in high school sports in Western Pa. No matter what happens for the first 31 minutes, you can almost guarantee the game is going to come down to the final play. You can also be sure that the gym will be packed with students, parents and fans from both schools, and that the visiting student section will make its collective voice heard just as loudly as the home side. There will be chanting, cheering, yelling and screaming, and much of what is said will not be fit to print. Just about all of it, actually.
When the dust settles, you’ll know you just witnessed another chapter in one of the WPIAL’s most storied rivalries, one that will carry on long after the current coaches, players and fans are gone. And Friday night was no exception.
After three slow, methodical quarters that saw both teams with fewer than 30 points going into the final quarter, the action picked up in a hurry as the Panthers and Blue Devils traded leads in the game’s frenetic final few minutes. In the end, Devin Hall’s and-one layup with 16.9 seconds to play proved the difference, lifting Upper St. Clair (12-8, 7-1) to a thrilling 37-36 victory and into a tie with Mt. Lebanon (13-6, 7-1) atop Class 6A Section 2. The teams will split another section title if each win its final two games.
“I think we both have so much respect for one another. For the most part, we’ve been the top two teams in the South Hills forever now,” Upper St. Clair coach Danny Holzer said. “It’s just amazing. … [Upper St. Clair-Mt. Lebanon games] are always just so exciting and fun.”
Hall scored 10 of his game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter, including a pair of 3-point plays when the Panthers needed them most. He was the only player from either team to finish in double figures.
The Blue Devils still had a chance to win after Hall’s go-ahead bucket, but they couldn’t get a pair of shots to go just before the buzzer. There appeared to be lots of contact on both shot attempts, but no foul was called, and hordes of Upper St. Clair students stormed the court as soon as time expired to mob Hall and his teammates.
“That’s the game of basketball. Sometimes it works for you, and sometimes it doesn’t,” Mt. Lebanon coach Joe David said. “They’re a good team.”
The low-scoring game was in stark contrast to the teams’ previous meeting, won by Mt. Lebanon at home in double overtime on Jan. 10, 74-69. The Blue Devils are known for their affinity for playing in and winning these types of matchups, bolstered by their stingy defense which allows only 48.9 points per game, best in Class 6A. But the Panthers found a way to beat them at their own game thanks to Hall’s heroics and some timely defense of their own.
“It’s so good to get this revenge on them,” Hall said. “It feels great.”
Somehow, Upper St. Clair managed to win despite not making a single field goal in the opening quarter. The Panthers trailed, 10-1, going into the second quarter, but they quickly came to life with an 11-0 run to take a 12-10 lead midway through the second.
“Fortunately, we only gave them 10 [in the first quarter], so that was the key. We were still right there,” Holzer said. “We knew it was going to go down to the end. We were just hoping we could make the last play, and we did.”
The third quarter saw Mt. Lebanon begin to retake control of the game while nursing a slim lead, but Upper St. Clair continued to hang around. Nate Girod made back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Blue Devils a 22-16 lead, then Nick Sukernek quickly answered with his second 3-pointer of the game. Another 3 by Girod made it a 27-23 Mt. Lebanon lead late in the third, and the Blue Devils took a 28-25 advantage into the final quarter.
The Panthers tied the game at 28 on an and-one layup by Hall, and it turned out to be a sign of things to come. He repeated the feat with Upper St. Clair trailing by two and less than 20 seconds remaining. The crowd erupted when Hall sunk the go-ahead free throw.
“[Hall] just had the hot hand,” Holzer said. “He loves getting to the rim and finishing like that, on both sides.”
The gym turned into a madhouse after time ran out on Mt. Lebanon’s last possession, with the celebration spilling onto the court and everybody wanting a piece of Hall. And although the Blue Devils’ fans may have drowned out Upper St. Clair’s early on, it was the Panthers faithful who had the last laugh.
“We have a lot of respect for them and their program,” Holzer said. “I’m really proud of my team.”
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at email@example.com.