AZUSA — With 27.5 seconds remaining, it appeared destiny was on the side of the St. Francis High basketball team.
The Golden Knights had just erased a five-point deficit in a matter of 27.5 seconds and tied visiting Oak Park in the program’s first-ever appearance at the CIF Southern Section Division III-A championship at the Felix Event Center in Azusa on Friday afternoon.
All this was done while Golden Knights junior guard Kyle Leufroy was playing through the pain of potentially twisted ankle.
Yet, a magical run, the support of a boisterous crowd, and a clutch catalyst still were not enough for St. Francis, as the Eagles scored the game’s final seven points and claimed a championship with a 60-53 victory.
“It just came down to defense, we couldn’t make any stops,” said Leufroy, who led all scorers with 26 points to go with six rebounds, but needed assistance to move his heavily taped ankle up the stairs of the team bus. “We made some big shots, but we also missed some.
“[Oak Park] didn’t miss the big shots down the stretch and that’s because we didn’t stop them.”
Leufroy seemed like a no-brainer candidate for game most valuable player when he stole an inbound pass at half-court with under 30 seconds left and St. Francis (19-12) trailing, 53-30.
Leufroy jumped in front of a pass intended for Eagles junior forward Robert Vetti (18 points) and was fouled by a late-charging Vetti just as Leufroy had pulled up for a three-pointer with 27.5 seconds left.
Despite a timeout from Oak Park Coach Aaron Shaw in between Leufroy’s free throws, the junior calmly sank all three to tie the game and cap a mini 5-0 run for the Golden Knights that was started with a layup from Dylan Crawford with 31 seconds left.
Previously, St. Francis had trailed Oak Park, 53-48, with 55 seconds left after a pair of free throws from Michael Alvarez (18 points).
Unfortunately for St. Francis, the comeback effort deflated less than a second later when Vetti was fouled after taking an inbound pass with 26.6 seconds.
Vetti also showed his clutch play by draining two go-ahead free throws to put Oak Park (21-10) in front, 55-53.
Trying to carry his team one more time, Leufroy received possession just outside the three-point line and slashed through the paint before missing off the iron on a five-footer with 20 seconds to go that was rebounded by both St. Francis’ Noah Willerford and Vetti.
The possession arrow was in Oak Park’s favor and the Eagles then sucked eight seconds off the clock before Alvarez was fouled.
Again, Alvarez and the Eagles were true from the line, as the Oak Park junior sank two free throws to give his team a 57-53 lead with 12 seconds remaining.
St. Francis’ subsequent inbound pass was intercepted by Vetti with nine seconds left and the Eagles eventually added three more free throws for their seven-point victory.
“When you play in these types of games, I don’t know if there is such a thing as a turning point,” St. Francis co-Coach Ray O’Brien said. “There’s just a series of plays that perhaps we could have done better and perhaps Oak Park could have done differently.
“At the end, we didn’t make the crucial stops, even after we made key scores. That was the difference.”
St. Francis’ comeback in the fourth seemed like more of the status quo for a squad that rallied in the fourth quarter for playoff wins over Yucca Valley and La Cañada.
The Golden Knights fell behind, 42-34, with 2:29 left in the third before closing the quarter with a 7-0 run capped on a two-footer from Greg Lupica created off an offensive rebound and assist from Evan Crawford.
“We battled and we gave everything we could, you just have to give it to Oak Park,” said Evan Crawford, who was St. Francis’ second-leading scorer with eight points and 11 rebounds. “We would make these comebacks and then we would let up. That was disappointing.”
Trailing for most the game, St. Francis took its first lead since 2-0 when Leufroy hit a fall-away jumper with 5:52 left in the fourth to put the Golden Knights up, 43-42.
From that point, both squads alternated the lead until Oak Park went ahead, 49-48, on a jumper from Niccolo Posarelli with 2:18 left that kick-started a 6-0 spurt for the Eagles.
St. Francis initially trailed Oak Park, 14-7, after one quarter. In that quarter, Leufroy appeared to injure himself at the six-minute mark.
“I hurt it somehow,” Leufroy said of his ankle. “I don’t know if I rolled it or what or how it even happened. I think I just landed on someone else’s foot.”
The Golden Knights fell behind, 21-9, in the second quarter before a 17-7 surge closed St. Francis' deficit to 28-26 at the half.