PASADENA — Against a Mark Keppel High team capable of scoring points in bursts, even a big second-half lead couldn't put the game entirely out of reach for the St. Francis basketball team on Tuesday night.
Fortunately for the Golden Knights, the next scoring run of their own was never far off, as St. Francis easily won its La Salle/Temple City Holiday Classic opening-round game, 57-45, behind productive nights from their big guns, senior guards Emerson Castaneda and Zack Gardea.
"We had good motion, good ball movement, good strong passes," said Gardea, who finished with 18 points and dished out seven assists. "We were in sync. First game after Christmas, we expected a little layoff, but we didn't [have one], we played well."
St. Francis (5-5) first pulled away with a 10-2 run to close the second quarter and take a 24-11 lead into halftime, as the Aztecs shot just three of 21 from the field in the first half. The Golden Knights continued to take advantage of the Aztecs' spotty outside shooting, inflating the lead to 34-19 on a layup by Castaneda (21 points) with just under four minutes left in the third quarter.
That's when Keppel began to find a spark offensively, taking advantage of some Golden Knights turnovers and putting together an 11-2 run in just two minutes. But Gardea got inside for a short floater to spark the Golden Knights' own 8-3 run and make it 42-25 going into the fourth.
"We knew they would make a run. They made the run and we answered it," St. Francis co-Coach Ray O'Brien said. "Overall, I was very happy with the fact that we had a lead, somewhere in the third quarter they had about an 8-0 run, and we came back with a run.
"That's really what we are looking for from our team is to have the maturity not to panic."
Gardea hit a three-pointer to push the lead to 20 early in the fourth quarter, but St. Francis would have to deal with one more frantic Keppel push before the job was through, as the Aztecs made an 8-2 run to pull back within 12 inside the final three minutes.
Castaneda's final three of the night, an open look from the top of the key, essentially sealed the deal at 57-42 with a minute left.
"They have a good press, they're an aggressive, quick team," Gardea said of Keppel, which was led by 14 points from Kyler Lee. "But we've practiced a lot through our press offense and it worked well."
St. Francis, which will play La Salle in the second round at 7:30 p.m. today, also got six points and eight rebounds from Justin Trout and three points and five rebounds from Noah Willerford.