St. Francis High boys' basketball holds off La Cañada to reach first championship

PASADENA — At times, it felt like the roof was caving in on the St. Francis High boys’ basketball team.

The visiting Golden Knights trailed for the better part of 2 1/2 quarters versus Foothill Blvd.-rival La Cañada in a city showdown that didn’t just promise the winner bragging rights, but also a berth in the CIF Southern Section Division III-A championship.

PHOTOS: St. Francis' 11-0 run leads to 56-53 victory

Despite trailing by seven points early in the fourth quarter, St. Francis rallied behind an 11-point run and then held on late against the Spartans on a slippery basketball court at neutral Maranatha High for a 56-53 victory in Friday evening’s divisional semifinal contest that clinched the Golden Knights the program’s first-ever championship-game visit.

“It’s huge for this program to get to a championship,” said Golden Knights co-Coach Ray O’Brien, who was hit on the shoulder by a chunk of falling ceiling tile in the second quarter. “We had never even been to the semifinals before, so this is special.

“We knew this was going to be a tough game and it didn’t help that we kept on slipping on open layups. I don’t know how many times we had easy layups and slipped. That was something else.”

The victory propelled the second-seeded Golden Knights (19-11), a Mission League at-large entry, into the finals next weekend at site to be determined versus fourth-seeded Oak Park (20-10), which defeated top-seeded Santa Barbara, 64-57, on Friday.

Rio Hondo League champion La Cañada, which was hoping to advance to the program’s first championship game since 2011, ended its run with a 23-7 mark.

“It was a great game and both teams had a lot of runs throughout,” Spartans Coach Tom Hofman said. “We had a great year and senior class. It will help our returners next year to bring out their potential.”

St. Francis saw a four-point lead at the three-minute mark in the fourth quarter halved to 55-53 after two free throws from Spartans sophomore guard Ko Ko Kurdoghlian with 1:35 remaining.

Kurdoghlian’s free throws were the first points for the third-seeded Spartans in nearly five minutes and seemed to swing momentum, particularly after the Golden Knights threw away their next offensive possession with a pass out of bounds with 1:18 left.

Yet, La Cañada was unable to tie as a fade-away 12-footer from Kurdoghlian, shot against heavy defense from St. Francis’ Evan Crawford, hit off the side of the rim and was rebounded by the Golden Knights.

Neither team made offensive headway on its following series, which forced La Cañada’s Grant Arthur (team-high 20 points) to foul St. Francis’ Kyle Leufroy with 16.9 seconds left and with the Golden Knights in the double-bonus.

While Leufroy led all scorers with 22 points, four steals and fours steals, he gave La Cañada life when he only hit one of two free throws to put the visitors ahead, 56-53.

La Cañada had Kurdoghlian bring the ball upcourt to a teammate, who slipped and lost his handle on the ball.

Crawford alertly grabbed possession and raced to the other side of the court, but didn’t score, instead preferring to dribble out the clock to the roar of an overflow crowd.

“We just made one too many mistakes,” said Kurdoghlian, who tallied 13 points. “I thought we had our chances against a good St. Francis team and it didn’t happen.”

While St. Francis pulled out the squeaker, it was a rally midway through the fourth that changed the game.

La Cañada took a 51-44 lead after a three-pointer from Kevin Depriest off an assist from Jacob Brown with 6:34 remaining.

From that point on, St. Francis wore the Spartans down and drove against La Cañada on the next five possessions, which resulted in five straight baskets and an 11-0 run that put St. Francis ahead, 55-51, after an offensive put back from Greg Lupica at 3:06.

“When we play in the Mission League, we’re usually one of the smaller teams, so we shoot a lot from the outside,” said Golden Knights senior forward Noah Willerford, who finished with 12 points and six rebounds. “Once we realized we had the size advantage, we went at La Cañada.”

St. Francis scored the game’s first six points, but then surrendered eight straight to the Spartans, who took a 13-10 lead after one quarter on a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Kurdoghlian.

La Cañada then scored the first six points of the second quarter before the Golden Knights responded and closed their deficit to 22-19 on a three-point play from Crawford with 3:55 left. La Cañada, though, scored 10 of the half’s last 17 points in taking a 32-26 lead into the break.

Perhaps the second-quarter’s most interesting moment came with 5:22 remaining when a tile hit the Golden Knights’ bench and halted the game and what was a 12-3 run by La Cañada.

“It felt like a Raiders’ game,” O’Brien quipped. “I thought the object came from the stands and I was wondering what was going on.

“You know that old saying, ‘the roof collapsing’, well that’s what was going on until we started to play our type of physical game and take over.”

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