CANONSBURG – Canon-McMillan boys basketball coach Rick Bell was the picture of stress the final few minutes of Tuesday night’s game against perennial power Upper St. Clair.
Although his blue dress shirt was untucked and tie askew, Bell managed to pull the right strings and coach the Big Macs to a scintillating 77-74 win over the Panthers at a throbbing Canon-McMillan High School gymnasium.
The win nudges the Big Macs (4-4, 10-8) into the postseason out of Section 2 Class 6A while keeping Upper St. Clair coach Danny Holzer one win short of 400 in his coaching career.
“I’m just so proud of our guys; I can’t tell you how proud I am,” Bell said outside a raucous Big Macs locker room. “They’ve been through a lot the past couple weeks and to bounce back like this is tremendous.”
Canon-McMillan limped into the second matchup with the Panthers on a three-game losing streak in which the Big Macs lost by an average of 19 points.
But Tuesday night was a different story as the Big Macs atoned for their 57-55 loss on Jan. 8 at Upper St. Clair (6-2, 18-2). Canon-McMillan was led by Luke Palma’s 23 points. Drew Engel and Tommy Samosky chipped in with 18 and 15 points, respectively.
Elliott Waller also played a strong game for the Big Macs as he contributed 10 points, six of which were earned in the frenetic fourth quarter. He also nabbed five rebounds and played stout defense all night.
“He typically facilitates well and plays a strong floor game for us,” Bell added. “Tonight was no exception.”
The Panthers had four players score in double figures. Luke Gensler led the way with 20 points for Upper St. Clair, while Luke Geisler, Chris Pantelis and Andrew Casey notched 15, 14 and 13 points, respectively.
Upper St. Clair had a chance to tie the game in the waning moments, but three pointers by Pantelis and Gensler each bounced off the rim, the second attempt by Gensler landed out of bounds as time expired.
“We had to hang on there at the end, for sure,” Bell said.
The game was a nip and tuck contest throughout with no team gaining a double-digit lead at any point. Canon-McMillan gained control late in the fourth when Engel banged home a three-pointer to give the Big Macs a 68-65 lead with 2:30 left in regulation.
A Samosky free-throw extended the lead to four points with 2:20 left. Then the dagger appeared to be struck when Tyler Crawford banked home a three-pointer to give the Big Macs a 72-65 lead with two minutes left in the game.
“I tell my players, ‘Play to win and not play to not to lose,’” Bell noted. “That’s what Tyler did.”
Two Gensler threes eventually cut it to 77-74 with less than a minute left. Hearts were beating faster along the Big Macs’ bench when Samosky missed two free throws late that left the door open for the Panthers, but the Big Macs managed to hang on.
Upper St. Clair looked to blow the Big Macs out of the gym in the early going as they roared out to a 14-5 lead in opening stages of the first quarter. But an 11-5 Big Macs run cut the Panthers’ lead to 19-16 heading into the second. Engel spearheaded the comeback with a late three.
The Panthers took a 38-37 lead into halftime courtesy of a buzzer-beating three by Geisler, which is the kind of shot that should have staggered the Big Macs. It did not as the hosts battled back throughout the third and into the fourth to eventually secure the win.