LA CAÑADA — When competing against your neighbor, things are bound to get intense.
After meeting earlier in the summer, the St. Francis and La Cañada high boys’ basketball teams had something to prove to each other. Having already cruised to a win against its cross-street rival, the Golden Knights wanted to prove they’re still formidable without three of their top players, while the Spartans were desperate to show they could make their opponent sweat in a summer league game at Flintridge Prep.
While both teams met those modest goals, it was St. Francis that came out with the win again, 61-54, behind a 40-22 rebounding advantage. The passion on the court was evident by the crowd, a few hard fouls committed and three technical fouls called – all on La Cañada.
“We have the Foothill Boulevard rivalry, it’s always fun to play with them,” said St. Francis’ Greg Lupica, who finished with a game-high in points (16) and rebounds (10). “We have a lot of friends on that team, there’s a lot of sportsmanship and competition between us.”
Three Knights notched or came within a board or two of a double-double. Noah Willerford tied Lupica for game-high honors in points with 16 and added eight rebounds, while Markar Agakanian had 11 points and nine boards.
“We’re a little small and we need to do a better job screening out,” said La Cañada Coach Tom Hofman, whose team enjoyed a 10-3 three-point edge. “We have some individuals getting better, but as a collective team we’re not really good yet. Today in this close game, if you take away the technicals, we screen out a little bit better and get the loose balls then we’d be more competitive.”
Still, St. Francis just couldn’t seem to put La Cañada away comfortably, playing in its sixth game in three days with two more waiting Sunday.
“I think what you see a little bit maybe out of both teams is mentally they lose focus at points and that’s part of the game, that’s what we’re trying to teach them,” said St. Francis co-Coach Ray O’Brien, whose team defeated Monrovia, 77-41, earlier Saturday. “This is a grind, but it’s good for you to learn to be mentally tough, because I think that’s a big part of a high school basketball game.”
Opening the second half with a 9-3 run, the Golden Knights took the largest lead of the game, 42-34, with 11:18 to play after Willerford scored seven of those points.
As it had all day, La Cañada kept close and tied the game at 42 after two quick three-pointers from Grant Arthur (14 points, five rebounds) and Koko Kurdoghlian (12 points, eight rebounds) and a layup from Alec Baktamian with 9:15 to go.
Lupica answered back with a three of his own to start an 11-1 spurt that gave St. Francis the largest lead of the game, 53-43, with 6:40 to play.
Still, the Knights couldn’t keep it going, as La Cañada’s Daivon Grayson then connected from long range with 5:44 to play. The Spartans managed to pull within four, 56-52, after a tough hook shot from Arthur went in with 2:40 to play.
Lupica dealt La Cañada a backbreaker 25 seconds later when he sank a three from the corner.
While Lupica may not be the first option in the regular season when Kyle Leufroy, Michael Allen and Evan Crawford are back in the fold, he now knows he’s capable if ever called upon.
“I think it’s good [playing without Leufroy, Allen and Crawford] because everyone steps out of their role and experiments for a little bit,” Lupica said. “It’s just good to have that chance to come out and show yourself, when it comes down to it then you can all mold together.”
The Spartans launched into foul mode over the final 1:30 in a comeback attempt. While the Knights hit just two of their four free throws down the stretch, La Cañada couldn’t make them pay, missing two three-pointers in the final 20 seconds.
“A couple weeks ago they killed us, so we’re getting better and they’re getting better,” Hofman said. “That’s a good seasoned team and we just want to be competitive with them at this time and I think we were.”