Last look off for St. Francis

LA CRESCENTA — The boys' basketball teams of St. Francis High and Simi Valley packed a game's worth of edge-of-your seat action into the final four minutes of the Falcon Classic third-place game at Crescenta Valley High Friday night, right up until Emerson Castaneda's buzzer-beating three-point attempt that would have sent the game to overtime for the Golden Knights.

The senior caught an inbound pass three quarters of the length of the court with 2.1 seconds left and rose above a pair of defenders to get a fairly good look at the basket, but his shot rattled off the rim to send St. Francis to a 70-67 loss.

"Right when it left my hand I thought it was going to go in and then it hit the back of the rim and the front of the rim and rolled out," said Castaneda, who led the Golden Knights with 21 points. "I was like, 'Oh, I just lost it for my team.'"

St. Francis co-Coach Ray O'Brien had a different take on why the Golden Knights came up short, on a night in which they started poorly and came on late, only to lose a lead in the fourth.

"I thought our inexperience showed in the first and then the last quarter because we turned the ball over a number of times at the end when we had a lead," said O'Brien, who also got 18 points from senior guard Zack Gardea. "It comes down to last shots, [but] I don't look at last shots, I look at everything that went into it and if I had to pinpoint a problem, it was a little bit of nerves at the beginning and the end of the game."

St. Francis led, 57-52, with 4:43 left in the game, but saw the Pioneers flip that into a 61-57 Simi Valley lead over the next two minutes on back-to-back three-pointers by DJ Saul, set up by a St. Francis turnover. Ian Frederich sank a three-pointer at the 2:32 mark to put Simi Valley up, 64-59, before St. Francis made a rally.

With just over a minute left, Castaneda drove the baseline for a layup to tie the game at 64 and Collin Peterson came up with a steal on the Pioneers' next possession, but the Golden Knights gave it right back in hastily trying to score. Simi Valley essentially won the game on the free-throw line, making six of six attempts down the stretch, including a pair by Saul that made it 68-64 with 12.1 seconds left after Gardea missed an easy layup off an inbound play under the St. Francis basket that would have tied the game.

Jake Beck gave the Golden Knights hope with a three-pointer with 2.1 seconds left to cut the lead to 68-67, but Saul made two more free throws and St. Francis' last look wasn't as fortuitous.

"Simi Valley, they were putting pressure on us and they were just playing really good 'D' and we were a little nervous and didn't know what to do," Castaneda said. "You've just got to give props to Simi for playing really good defense. We've just got to practice on offense and [practice] not turning the ball over."

St. Francis didn't look sharp in the first quarter, trailing, 21-9, going into the second after surrendering two three-point plays, three quick hoops under the basket on inbound plays and committing seven turnovers and eight fouls.

The Golden Knights had closed to within 35-32 by halftime on a layup by Gardea and stayed locked in a back-and-forth battle with Simi Valley throughout the third quarter, in which Castaneda scored nine, but Kameel Zreik went off for 12 of his game-high 24 points.

"Our inexperienced players are getting a lot more time and today we had a lot of contributions from the bench, both offensively and defensively, which is a good sign," said O'Brien, who got eight points from Tei Vanderford and five from Beck. "We were happy that a lot of the other role players stepped up."

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