St. Francis finds scoring, winning touch

BURBANK — Throughout the summer, the members of the St. Francis High basketball team have struggled offensively. It’s not something that’s gone ignored.

With Emerson Castaneda, Zack Gardea and Tei Vanderford — three key pieces to St. Francis’ offense the past several seasons — having graduated, the Golden Knights have spent the bulk of the summer looking for some new reinforcements. They may have found one in forward Noah Willerford.

Willerford scored 14 points, including 11 in the second half, to help spark St. Francis to a 42-40 victory against Dorsey on Sunday in the fifth-place game of the Providence Tournament at Providence High.

“We’ve been trying to find different guys to step up, and we are trying to have more people involved with distributing the ball because we’ve been having a tough time scoring,” said St. Francis co-Coach Jeff Stephens, whose team went 3-1 in the two-day tournament. “This was about as good as we’ve looked in a while.

“With somebody like Noah, he wants to go out there and score. He can shoot and he can be our leading scorer come next season. He’s got to work on some things, like his footwork, but he’s gotten better.”

Willerford, who will be a junior in the fall, said he’s accepted the role of helping augment St. Francis’ offense.

“I’m trying to help out all the time,” said Willerford, who made a pair of free throws to give the Golden Knights a 39-36 lead with 3:30 remaining in the contest. “I came off the bench last season, and I’ve been working on different things during the summer.

“Dorsey’s defense was pretty tough, and we’ll see some things like that once we get to Mission League.”

St. Francis, which advanced to the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division III-AA playoffs last season, got two free throws from Jordan Lynch with 18.9 seconds remaining to take a 44-40 lead. Dorsey, which advanced to the L.A. City Section Division I championship game last season against Taft, scored on its final possession with eight seconds remaining.

Dorsey held an 18-16 halftime advantage before the Golden Knights turned things in their favor.

Willerford made a three-pointer to give the Golden Knights a 19-18 lead with 19:30 left. It ignited a 16-5 run by St. Francis, which ended on a three-pointer by Jake Beck to make it 35-25 with 9:41 remaining.

The Dons then went on an 8-0 run in the next four minutes to close to within 35-33. The Golden Knights, who earlier Sunday posted a 41-26 victory against Holy Martyrs, which captured the CIF Southern Section Division V-A crown last season, made five free throws the remainder of the game to fend off the Dons.

St. Francis received 11 points from guard Philip Little, including seven in the second half.

St. Francis opened the tournament Saturday with a 51-37 loss against Kennedy before regrouping for a 59-30 victory against Heritage Christian.

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