SHERMAN OAKS — With the playoffs set to begin next week, the members of the St. Francis High basketball team are still scrambling to get back on track.
St. Francis figured it could begin its path to right the ship when it faced host Sherman Oaks Notre Dame on Monday in a Mission League game. Notre Dame had yet to win a league game.
Notre Dame must have forgotten it hadn't won in a long time, and promptly caught St. Francis off guard to post a 48-44 victory.
Slumping St. Francis, ranked third in the latest CIF Southern Section Division III-A poll, dipped to 15-10, 4-7 in league. Notre Dame, No. 12 in Division IV-AA, improved to 9-17, 1-10. St. Francis dropped to 1-4 in the second half of league play with a regular-season finale league game at Chaminade, ranked second in Division III-A, on deck Wednesday.
"We've been playing like individuals and not the team that started league with hustle and energy," said St. Francis co-Coach Ray O'Brien, whose team dropped its third straight game. "It's gut-check time for us and we need to find out exactly who we are.
"[Notre Dame] was desperate for a [league] win and they showed that, especially in the first half. They outplayed us on sheer energy. We've let a little success go to our heads. We've stopped being hungry."
St. Francis rallied in the fourth quarter to take the lead briefly when Noah Willerford made a three-pointer to give the Golden Knights a 44-43 advantage with 1:15 remaining.
Notre Dame, which snapped an 11-game losing streak, regained the lead at 45-44 on a pair of free throws by Tyler Umans with 38.5 seconds remaining. Willerford attempted another three-pointer on the ensuing possession, but missed and Umans was fouled before making two free throws to extend the lead to 47-44 with 23 seconds left. A three-pointer by Willerford was off the mark with 5.9 seconds remaining. Ryan Ducar of Notre Dame was then fouled and made one of two free-throw attempts to cap the scoring.
St. Francis junior point guard Michael Allen said St. Francis learned a valuable lesson.
"You have to be focused right from the start, no matter who you are playing," said Allen, who collected four points. "We've been in a lot of close games, but we weren't able to put it together tonight.
"We need to get a win going into the playoffs."
St. Francis received a team-high 21 points from junior guard Kyle Leufroy, a reigning All-Area honoree. Willerford finished with 11 points, including three three-pointers.
Notre Dame, which split the two-game season series against St. Francis, received 13 points from Luca Ferrari and 12 from Elijah Ellen.
St. Francis recorded a 54-46 home win against Chaminade (20-4, 8-3) on Jan. 27.
"It's another chance, but we have to be better prepared," said O'Brien, whose team trailed, 28-19, at halftime. "In this league, anybody can beat anybody."
The CIF Southern Section playoff pairings will be unveiled Sunday.