AZUSA — During part of its historic playoff run, the St. Francis High basketball team had some incredible fourth-quarter rallies to land a spot in the CIF Southern Section Division III-A championship game.
It started with an opening-round overtime win against Yucca Valley before coming back late to defeat neighbor and third-seeded La Cañada in the semifinals.
On Friday night in the title game against Oak Park at Azusa Pacific University's Felix Event Center, St. Francis found itself in yet another comeback mode, rallying from a five-point deficit in the final minute before seeing its bid for the program's first CIF title cut short in a 60-53 defeat.
Fourth quarters had belonged to the upstart and second-seeded Golden Knights (21-10) until fourth-seeded Oak Park warded them off en route to capturing the program's first CIF crown after a pair of runner-up finishes.
“You assume we are dead and then we find a way to rise and make a comeback,” said St. Francis co-Coach Ray O'Brien, whose team earned an at-large entry after finishing tied for fifth with Harvard-Westlake in the rugged Mission League. “We are down five at 53-48 and we find a way to get back in it right away.
“We've come back before, but you have to give Oak Park credit for making some outside shots. We got a taste of playing in a championship game and it's something our guys won't soon forget.”
Oak Park, which finished tied for second with Bishop Diego in the Tri-Valley League, saw St. Francis get a layup from Dylan Crawford to bring the Golden Knights to within 53-50 with 31 seconds left in regulation. St. Francis' Kyle Leufroy, a reigning All-Area pick, then stole the inbound pass near mid-court, took a couple of dribbles and was fouled on a three-point shot attempt.
Bedlam erupted in the St. Francis fan section and Leufroy, who finished with a game-high 26 points, calmly made all three free throws to knot it at 53 with 27.5 seconds remaining.
Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, that would be all, as the Eagles made seven of eight free throws the remainder of the way to clinch the championship.
“We felt like we could do it again,” said Leufroy, who hobbled on a gimpy right ankle after he sustained an injury early in the first quarter. “We just came up short.
“It's tough right now. It wasn't one of our best games.”
Oak Park Coach Aaron Shaw, whose team dispatched St. Francis in the quarterfinals last season, said he was well aware of St. Francis' ability to take over contests in the fourth quarter.
“It's something we talked about during the week,” said Shaw, who received 20 points from Cole Micek and 18 apiece from Michael Alvarez and Robert Vetti. “Hats off to St. Francis because that's a real good team.
“I thought the place got real loud when [Leufroy] made those three free throws, but we were able to get down and make some huge free throws. I think the teams are very similar and you always want a good game to decide a champion. They have some very good players, so we had to work for everything we got.”
O'Brien said the Golden Knights, who were down by as many as 12 in the first half before storming back and briefly going ahead, had plenty to be proud off, and their season might not be done with the Golden Knights likely to be invited to the state tournament next week.
“As bitter as it is to lose tonight, if you told us a few months ago that we'd get to a CIF championship game, we'd all take it,” said O'Brien, who shares the coaching responsibilities with Jeff Stephens. “It's been a memorable ride.
“You'd like to have a play here or there back, but we knew we gave it a good shot. They accomplished quite a lot.”