Knights come up short in fourth

LA CAÑADA FLINTRIDGE — With both teams still stuck in the 20s by the end of the third quarter, offense was at a premium when the St. Francis High boys' basketball team hosted Covina in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division 3A playoffs Friday night.

It was an inopportune time for the Golden Knights to be without the services of their top scorer, senior guard Emerson Castaneda, who was out with a severe meniscus sprain, according to co-Coach Ray O'Brien.

St. Francis' other players provided enough offense and defense, as well, to keep the game neck and neck nearly all night. But the Golden Knights missed Castaneda's presence when their other go-to scorer, senior guard Zack Gardea, was well-covered down the stretch of the fourth quarter, where St. Francis battled unsuccessfully to come from behind en route to a 50-41 loss.

"We knew we had to stay close the whole way," said O'Brien, whose team trailed by one after three quarters, but fell behind by seven points with 2:46 to play in the fourth. "We knew if they separated from us then it was going to be difficult because the one thing we didn't have was three-point shooting. With Emerson out, we knew it was going to be a game where we had to keep them under 50 to win."

Senior forward Tei Vanderford stepped up for St. Francis with 13 points and five rebounds, while Gardea scored 11 points and sophomore Noah Willerford and freshman Michael Allen chipped in seven and six, respectively.

"We battled the whole game, we competed the whole game," said Vanderford, who knocked down a short pull-up jumper in traffic with 1:42 left to pull the Golden Knights to within 41-38, the closest they would come. "All of the bounces didn't go our way, it seemed like, and we were battling without our best player and the leader of our team.

"We just feel bad that we couldn't pull this one out."

Covina was led by 13 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks from 6-foot-7 senior center Edgardo Campos, who spent most of every Colts possession camped out on the perimeter.

In the second half, it became clear why, as Campos hit the two biggest shots of the game — a three-pointer from the right side with 4:30 left in the fourth to give Covina its biggest lead of the night to that point, 38-32, and another triple from the right corner three minutes later. The second was a back breaker, as it gave the Colts a 44-38 lead with 1:30 to play and St. Francis would never get closer the rest of the way.

"They hit some key shots," O'Brien said. "We focused on stopping their point guard, which we did. ...[Campos] hit two big shots from the corner. We wanted him to shoot that. [We wanted to] contest it. ...He's 6-foot-7, you're not going to block that shot."

St. Francis went on an 8-0 run in the first quarter to take a 10-5 lead on an Allen jumper with 1:07 left, but Covina had closed back to within two by quarter's end. The second quarter was back and forth, with St. Francis taking an 18-16 lead into halftime on Vanderford's jump shot with 1:30 left.

Gardea knocked down a three-pointer to tie the game at 26 with 1:30 left in the third, but senior forward Nino Harrell answered with a triple of his own 30 seconds later to give the Colts the lead for good.

"I thought we were in it the whole game until there were probably about 30 seconds left," Vanderford said. "We're never going to stop competing, we're never going to give up."

St. Francis bids farewell to three of the five players who started Friday's game — Gardea, Vanderford and Justin Trout — as well as Castaneda, whom O'Brien said would have been highly doubtful for Tuesday's quarterfinals should the Knights have advanced.

"That's a terrible way to see a great kid [end his high school career]," O'Brien said. "In my opinion, he's on the floor tonight and we win this game.

"Zack and Emerson have just been great in terms of the amount of leadership they have and the fact that they go out there every day without any fear at all. They know all the attention's going to come on them. Everybody has a bull's eye on those two game in and game out and they scored between 15 and 20 points so consistently for us."

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