LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — Games that have come down to the wire have not been kind to the St. Francis High boys' basketball team so far this season.
The fourth quarter of Friday night's contest between Saugus and the Golden Knights featured three lead changes and three ties. Again, a shot from St. Francis in the final seconds was off, as the Centurions prevailed, 58-52, in the La Cañada Holiday Classic Tournament pool-play game.
Despite suffering another heart-breaking loss, St. Francis co-Coach Jeff Stephens said it was one of his team's best performance of the season.
"We are just trying to get the guys to concentrate on the game one possession at a time," Stephens said. "I think that was our best game as far as concentrating one possession at a time. The guys' heads are down, but I thought it was a huge step forward for us."
Saugus (6-1) took a 54-52 lead with 26 seconds left Friday after its Jeremy Gatewood followed up a St. Francis turnover with a layup. The Golden Knights (3-4) looked to take their first lead of the final quarter since the 5:30 mark, but their three-pointer was off the mark and rebounded by the Centurions' Ryan Webb.
Gatewood (16 points) was quickly fouled and hit both free throws to give his team a 56-52 lead with nine seconds left. Any hope of a St. Francis comeback was extinguished when the Golden Knights turned it over on their ensuing possession and Gatewood again hit both of his shots from the charity stripe for a 58-52 final score.
Emerson Castaneda did all he could to lead St. Francis to victory. He did more than just score, finishing with a game-high 27 points and 11 rebounds.
"We aren't worried about Emerson getting his points," Stephens said. "What we were really excited about was his rebounds. It was really the first time he put together an entire game this year."
The loss puts Saugus in the tournament's championship game Saturday at 7:30 p.m. against the winner of Friday's La Canada-Muir game. St. Francis will play Saturday at 4:30 p.m. against Arcadia.
Stephens said he has seen his team, particularly the underclassmen, take some big strides in the tournament.
"We are excited about their effort," Stephens said. "We are just trying to get ready for that Mission League."
St. Francis went into Friday's fourth quarter with a 40-39 lead, but quickly saw it erased on a three from Webb on the opening possession of the quarter. Castaneda answered back with consecutive baskets — a three and a fadeaway jumper from the top of the key — to push his team's edge to 45-44.
Saugus' Mitch Davis nailed a putback on the next possession and Gatewood followed it with a three to give the Centurions a 47-45 lead with about 4:40 remaining.
Two plays later, St. Francis' Noah Willerford tied the game at 48 with a three of his own. The game was tied again at 50 and 52 with 1:30 left, as Tei Vanderford (six points, six rebounds) came up with two clutch shots in a row for the Golden Knights.
The entire game was a battle, as no team held a lead greater than six points Friday. Saugus first took a six-point edge with an 11-5 lead early in the first. St. Francis tied the game at 13 by the end of the quarter behind six points from Castaneda.
The Golden Knights never led by more than three points Friday. Zack Gardea grabbed his own rebound and hit a floater with three seconds left in the third quarter to put St. Francis up by one. St. Francis took its biggest lead, 45-42, coming with about six minutes left in the game on Castaneda's fadeaway jumper.