LA CAÑADA — Not much acreage separates St. Francis High and La Cañada.
In a nonleague boys’ basketball game on Friday at the Hotchkins Family Gym, where the Spartans played host to their close Golden Knights neighbors, the teams were eventually separated by a thin margin.
Although La Cañada eventually broke free of St. Francis’ early defensive efforts, it was the visiting Golden Knights who left triumphant with a 52-50 victory and bragging rights in the Battle of Foothill Blvd.
“It got a little closer than we expected, but it’s a well-coached team and a good program, so it’s expected by them,” St. Francis coach Todd Wolfson said.
The Golden Knights (11-3) held the Spartans to seven field goals in the first half and eight points in each of the first two quarters.
On the other hand, St. Francis made nine shots in the first half, four of which were from three-point range.
But the Spartans picked up their offense in the second half with hot shooting, connecting on eight three-pointers in 15 attempts.
“Both teams played really hard,” La Cañada coach Tom Hofman said. “I felt our start killed us. We’re a little bit down from Thursday and we didn’t do a very good job. St. Francis played very hard the entire game, but I’m proud of our kids. We made a nice comeback and almost won the game.”
La Cañada senior Ryan Graves and sophomore Ryan Grande sparked the Spartans’ (10-5) comeback bid. Graves, who made only one shot in the first half, hit back-to-back threes after Grande knocked one in to cut the St. Francis lead to 34-25 via a 9-0 La Cañada run.
Graves, who had a game-high 25 points with five threes, would later open and close the final quarter with shots from three-point range.
“We realized we were down by 13 [at halftime] and we had to come back ready to go,” Graves said. “We had good shots in the first half but we didn’t connect on any of them, but we were still trying to play our game.”
The Spartans rallied for much of the final quarter and a Graves three-pointer with 58 seconds left made it the St. Francis advantage 50-47.
“It looked like it was all over, but Ryan [Graves] and Ryan [Grande] made some big shots and we made some defensive stops, so I’m happy with the ending of the game,” Hofman said. “We would’ve liked to get that one offensive rebound or one defensive rebound — there’s always one rebound every game that is the difference and we didn’t get that.”
St. Francis quelled the comeback attempt after a pair of free throws from junior Andre Henry made it 52-47 with six seconds left.
“The kids did a great job with their effort,” Wolfson said. “Graves is so good for them and he makes more contested threes than wide open ones and it’s frustrating as a coach, but testament to him and all the work he does.”
Graves scored 10 points in the third quarter and 13 in the fourth for the rallying hosts.
Henry led the Golden Knights with 16 points and also had an offensive burst in the second half.
“Every time I drove, I felt like they were collapsing,” Henry said. “So I had to get my teammates involved and they were hitting shots and that’s what changed it. We played defense, held them to 16 points. We played amazing defense and it was an amazing first quarter and first half.
The Spartans scored first with about three minutes gone in the first quarter, but the Golden Knights’ defense stymied the hosts’ offense for much of the remainder of the first half.
La Cañada struggled to find a basket from distance and in the paint early on, while St. Francis was able to penetrate the key and score.
The trend continued in the second quarter as the Spartans went three-for 13-shooting in the period.
“I think if we play defense, we’ll be in any game,” said Henry, who scored four points in the first half, but was a key factor on the Golden Knights’ defense. “We’ll have a good chance to win every game because, honestly, I think our offense is good enough; we just have to hold teams.”
Despite a three-pointer early in the second quarter by Jake George, the Golden Knights quickly responded with a steal for a layup and a three-point shot by St. Francis senior Dennis Flowers III for a 22-11 lead.
The senior had 10 first-half points.
Friday’s victory against La Cañada was St. Francis’ first since Dec. 30, 2013, when the Golden Knights posted a 58-51 win.