LA CAÑADA — Entering Wednesday’s first-round showdown of the CIF Southern Section Division II-AA boys’ basketball playoffs at La Cañada High, St. Francis coach Todd Wolfson and Spartans coach Tom Hofman knew their teams would test each other for all 32 minutes.
Time and time again, the Golden Knights pulled away to double-figure leads that the Spartans would erase down the stretch. It wasn’t until the final moments of the game where one team ended up with a bit of a breather.
In the end, it was St. Francis that came out triumphant with a 62-56 victory against a tough La Cañada team in a marquee first-round matchup between neighboring rivals separated by less than a half-mile.
“We expected a war,” said Wolfson, whose Golden Knights are ranked No. 7 in Division II-AA. “Everybody’s saying ‘Oh you guys should be the favorite.’ Maybe, but when you play against a guy who’s got a million wins and two players on their team that don’t miss shots, anything can happen.
“They definitely brought their A-game tonight and we just had a couple of nice plays down the stretch.”
The win puts the Golden Knights into Saturday’s second round where they will host San Gabriel Academy at 7 p.m.
The Golden Knights (23-7), third from the Mission League, led by 10 points entering the fourth quarter and eventually set up a 53-41 lead with 3:12 remaining on a basket from senior Andre Henry.
A flurry of three-pointers proceeded, with shots made from Spartans junior Ryan Grande, senior Kyle Brown and junior Nathan Snow to cut the St. Francis lead to 56-50 with 1:34 to go.
La Cañada, the Rio Hondo League champion, made it a four-point margin behind a pair of free throws from Grande with 8.2 left, but a steal and a slam from Henry sealed the game at the final buzzer.
“We just stayed composed and kept on fighting,” said Henry, who’s set to attend the UC Irvine. “I’ve never been with a team with such heart, and that’s how we do it. We fight.”
Henry finished with 27 points and 15 rebounds, while St. Francis senior Jason Gallant and sophomore Jake Goldberg each added 10 points each.
Brown led the Spartans with 24 points and Grande contributed 23.
“We’ve got a lot better since we played them, but so did they,” Hofman said. “They’re well-coached and have good players. I’m really happy that we had a chance to win the game.
“There were a couple of turnovers that really hurt us, but all you really want is a chance to win the game, and we did. Defensively, we played pretty well, and Kyle and Ryan were doing a good job scoring points for us.”
After three lead changes to start the game, the Golden Knights set up a 14-4 lead at 2:47 in the first quarter on the back of an 11-0 run.
The Spartans (18-11) closed the quarter scoring six unanswered to finish the frame trailing the Golden Knights, 14-10.
St. Francis took a 19-12 lead with 6:04 left in the second, but a mid-range basket from Grande and a three-pointer from Brown sliced the lead to two points moments later.
Numerous trips to the foul line from Henry set up the largest lead of the half for the Golden Knights, 26-17, with 1:31 remaining in the second before a jumper from Grande made cut it to a seven-point game at the half.
The Spartans outscored the Golden Knights, 7-2, to start the second half to cut the visitors’ lead to 28-26.
After a pair of free throws from Grande to keep it a two-point margin at 4:54, St. Francis further separated itself with a 10-0 run for a 40-28 lead with 48.6 left in the third.
“When you get to the playoffs, coaching is important, but your guys have to make plays,” Wolfson said. “They all did and they stepped up and had a good run in the third quarter to create a little separation for us. We needed every point of it because it came down to the wire.”
The two teams traded three-pointers to end the third, with a half-court make from Grande to set up a 43-33 margin.