ENCINO — The lead changed five times in the final four minutes of the Mission League Tournament semifinal between the St. Francis High boys’ basketball team and Chaminade.
Behind nine points and an assist on a three-pointer from Golden Knights senior Jason Gallant, No. 2-seed St. Francis battled back from a six-point deficit to take a one-point lead over the Eagles.
However, Eagles Kenneth Simpson Jr. had a hot hand, and that continued throughout the final moments, as the junior’s 27 points in the second half lifted Chaminade past St. Francis, 83-78, at Crespi High on Wednesday.
“It’s a weird game because it’s not the playoffs, but it’s a game we want try to compete and win,” St. Francis coach Todd Wolfson said. “It’s an interesting one, but we just tried to put some stuff together and see what we can do trying to throw some stuff at the wall and see what stuck.”
Gallant’s 12-point effort in the fourth quarter saw him finish with 28 points for St. Francis, ranked No. 8 in CIF Southern Section Division II-AA. Golden Knights senior Andre Henry followed with 25 points, five rebounds and six assists and senior Kai Glassen added 12 points with four three-pointers.
“Honestly, the kid played great. KJ’s a great player,” Gallant said. “He hit some tough shots. Defense wins championships, but sometimes better offense wins games. That was just one of those games. Good thing we’re not done.”
St. Francis, which lost to host Chaminade, 67-64, on Jan. 15, had a double-digit lead by the end of the first quarter and led by four at the half.
Chaminade, ranked No. 5 in Division II-AA, flipped the script at the end of the third to lead by four, but an 8-0 run midway in the fourth quarter gave St. Francis a 70-68 advantage with 4:10 left.
“I thought we had a good game plan,” Gallant said. “Coach prepared us, but, like he said after the game, I think it started yesterday in practice. I think we already beat ourselves in practice. We didn’t come fully focused. I was trying to get the team focused in the locker room. There was just something a little off today. Maybe playing at 6 [p.m.]? I don’t know.”
Simpson Jr. tied the score at 75 with 2:16 remaining before giving the Eagles a two-point cushion a minute later. The junior closed out the game by hitting four straight free throws and sealed the win with a steal of Henry.
“I saw how they came out,” Simpson said. “They came out aggressive and they came out ready to play. They really brought a challenge.”
Simpson Jr. scored a career-high 41 points for the Eagles and Chaminade junior Keith Higgins Jr. added 15.
Golden Knights sophomore Buckley DeJardin facilitated most of the Golden Knights’ offense in the opening quarter, as St. Francis (22-7) took a 14-7 lead with four minutes to go in the first.
A three-point play from Henry, who’s bound for the UC Irvine, set up the Golden Knights with a 17-7 advantage with 2:46 to go before a three-pointer from Glassen closed the quarter with a 24-13 lead for the Golden Knights. Simpson Jr. went two of eight from the field in the frame.
The Eagles (23-6) outscored the Golden Knights, 13-2, to cut the St. Francis advantage to 28-26 with 5:20 left in the half.
Chaminade finally took the lead, 32-31, with 3:22 to go in the quarter on a lay-in from Simpson.
St. Francis regained a two-point lead on a three-pointer from Henry seconds later as the Golden Knights held on to a 37-33 advantage at the half.
After a Glassen three to start the second half, Chaminade went on an 8-0 run and took a 41-40 lead at 5:27 in the quarter.
A three-pointer from Henry restored a two-point cushion for St. Francis moments later, but a lay-in from Chaminade center Abe Eagle tied the score at 43 with 4:54 to go in the quarter.
“We thought that we had an advantage on the inside, not only with Abe, but with Ken, Keith and Jaylen [Henderson],” Chaminade coach Bryan Cantwell said. “We started to give the ball to Ken on the inside. We tried not to attack from the top anymore and it worked. They went to the zone and gave Ken a little space at the top. When they went back to man coverage, we kept attacking the side into the post.”
St. Francis sophomore Jake Goldberg hit a three-pointer to end a 10-2 run from Chaminade to put the Golden Knights within 53-48.
The Golden Knights managed to make it a single-digit difference at the end of the third on a three from Glassen to trail the Eagles, 60-56.