A trip to the CIF Southern Section Division III-A championship contest appeared to be anything but a slam dunk for the St. Francis High basketball team just a couple of weeks ago.
After stumbling through the second half of Mission League, St. Francis earned the second seed in the division’s playoff bracket before being taken to overtime by unseeded Yucca Valley in the first round. Since the opening-round scare, the Golden Knights appear to be the squad that excelled throughout December and the first part of January.
It’s paved the way for St. Francis to advance to the CIF championship contest for the first time in the program’s history.
Now, St. Francis (19-11) will look to make its final push when it meets fourth-seeded Oak Park (20-10) in the division title contest at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Azusa Pacific University’s Felix Event Center.
“We had our share of struggles toward the end of league, but we have turned things around and are excited about playing for a championship,” said Golden Knights co-Coach Ray O’Brien, who splits the St. Francis coaching responsibilities with Jeff Stephens. “I think after the Yucca Valley game, we got back to doing a better job of defense and rebounding and we started to get to the rim a lot more.
“It’s about knowing your roles and accepting them.”
St. Francis, which earned an at-large berth after finishing tied for fifth in league with Harvard-Westlake, advanced to the championship game with a 56-53 semifinal victory against neighbor and third-seeded La Cañada on Friday at Maranatha High. Revamped Oak Park, which finished tied for second with Bishop Diego in the Tri-Valley League after losing all five starters from last season’s team, notched a 64-57 home semifinal victory against top-seeded Santa Barbara. Oak Park, also seeking its first CIF crown, eliminated St. Francis in the quarterfinals last season with a convincing 64-42 home win.
The Golden Knights and Eagles, who previously reached title games in 2005 and 2011, have learned plenty since their last matchup.
“We found out a lot about them after we played them last year,” O’Brien said. “It’s a different cast of players that they now have, but they have a tradition of fielding strong teams and being fundamentally sound.
“We learned some things from them in the playoffs last year. Maybe we weren’t entirely prepared for that game, but at least we got that experience. We’ve seen some film of Oak Park and they seem to be getting better.”
Oak Park fifth-year Coach Aaron Shaw said he could see signs of the Golden Knights being on track to go farther in the playoffs following the 2013 matchup.
“You could see they had a lot of pieces in the right place,” Shaw said. “I felt they would have a good team before the season began.
“It was just a gradual process for them — just like for us. In a way, it’s a whole new deal for both teams.”
The Golden Knights have turned to junior guard Kyle Leufroy throughout most of the playoffs. Leufroy, a reigning All-Area second-team selection, scored eight of his 22 points in the fourth quarter to turn back La Cañada. St. Francis has also received big postseason contributions from senior forward Evan Crawford, junior guard Michael Allen, junior forward John Carroll and senior forward Noah Willerford.
Crawford, who recorded a steal in the waning seconds against La Cañada to secure the victory, said the Golden Knights have regained their confidence in all facets on the court.
“We’ve been able to put things together,” Crawford said. “We are very thankful to have the opportunity to play for a championship.
“Everybody is contributing in different areas on both sides of the court. Oak Park has a new and good team and we know it will be tough. Both teams are hungry.”
The Eagles will counter with junior guard/forward Michael Alvarez, senior guard Cole Micek and senior forward Matt Byer. Alvarez is averaging 21 points and six rebounds per game. Micek averages about 14 points per game and Byer has been a force rebounding.
“We beat Santa Barbara and it was a great atmosphere,” Shaw said. “Our poise has been growing with each game. Early in the season, we had our share of ups and downs. We couldn’t close out some close games, but we’ve vastly improved since the second half of league.”