RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA – Thoughts of an upset for the St. Francis High basketball team fizzled away in just a little over five minutes Saturday evening.
The Golden Knights’ one-time seven-point lead reversed into a seven-point deficit from which they did not recover, despite a valiant, in a season-ending 74-66 loss at Santa Margarita Catholic High in the CIF State Division III playoffs second round.
With the victory, the third-seeded Eagles (25-8), the CIF Southern Section Division III-AA champions, advanced to the Southern California semifinals on Tuesday at Los Angeles Cathedral.
The defeat caps a historic season for the Golden Knights, who advanced to the program’s first-ever CIF Southern Section Division III-A title game, reached the second round in a first-ever state postseason appearance and finished with a 20-13 record.
“They hit a couple of threes and narrowed the gap and we made some turnovers,” Golden Knights co-Coach Ray O’ Brien said of the fourth quarter. “That physicality that we’ve brought against other teams [in the postseason] got used against us tonight.
“Santa Margarita had the ability to really pound against us and we tired out at the end.”
St. Francis, the runner-up in Division III-A, took its biggest lead of 55-48 after a free throw from reserve forward Brodie Felkel with 2:02 remaining in the third quarter.
While the Golden Knights seemed in control, they also entered the danger zone, which happened to be the final two minutes of each quarter Saturday night.
St. Francis was outscored, 27-16, the last two minutes of each quarter combined, including 4-0 in the third, when the Eagles rebounded with back-to-back buckets from Scott Wieserski and Sjur Berg to close their deficit to 55-52 after three.
What was unknown to both sides is that the Eagles’ quarter-closing 4-0 spurt helped launch a momentum- and game-changing 16-2 run over the next 5:07 capped on a layup from Wieserski (12 points) with 4:53 left in the fourth that put Santa Margarita ahead, 64-57.
Wieserski’s layup was created off a steal from sophomore guard Colin Ferrier, which led to an outlet pass and assist from senior guard Devonte Klines (game-high 22 points).
The turnover was one of four the Golden Knights committed through their first six possessions of the fourth quarter.
While St. Francis minimized mistakes through the first three quarters in committing only eight turnovers, the Golden Knights finished with five turnovers in the fourth.
“We made mistakes, I made mistakes that cost us,” said St. Francis junior guard Kyle Leufroy, who led his squad with 21 points and five rebounds. “I was really proud of the way so many guys stepped up.
“Senior Evan Crawford had his best game and so many guys played great. It’s tough to lose.”
Down seven, the Golden Knights never pulled any closer and eventually fell behind double-digits at 70-59 with 2:42 left after another four-footer from Wieserski.
Saturday’s contest took on a Mission League feel for the Golden Knights, as Santa Margarita’s starting lineup included three players 6-foot-6 or taller and one big reserve in 6-10 senior center Novak Topalovic.
Even with the height disadvantage, the Golden Knights attacked Santa Margarita’s paint, which led to 10 blocks for the Eagles.
“We didn’t underestimate St. Francis,” Santa Margarita Coach Jeff Reinert said. “We knew they’d battle us and they did.”
Part of St. Francis’ ability to stay in the game centered on the strong effort of Crawford, the Golden Knights’ senior guard, who scored 19 points and added six assists.
St. Francis also received some strong efforts from Felkel, starting guard Greg Lupica and reserve guard Markar Agakanian, who all chipped in six points.
“It was a strong all-around effort for some players tonight, led by Evan,” O’Brien said. “We have a lot to be proud of.”
Santa Margarita took a 41-38 lead after a frantic first half that saw both teams switch the advantage.
St. Francis trailed, 33-28, with 3:19 remaining in the second quarter after an inside bucket from Joe Furstinger (17 points, nine rebounds and five blocks) when the Golden Knights responded with a game-tying 5-0 spurt highlighted on a transition three-pointer from Leufroy that knotted the contest at 33 with 1:29 left.
Nearly a minute later, Leufroy gave St. Francis its first lead since late in the first quarter when the junior guard buried a corner three off an assist from Crawford with 34 seconds left to propel the visitors ahead, 38-37.
To the Eagles’ credit, they scored the final four points of the half, including a layup with two seconds left from Berg created off a block shot from Klines.
The Eagles’ end to the first half was not as dramatic as the conclusion of the first quarter.
St. Francis once led, 16-10, with 1:43 remaining in the quarter after a three-pointer from Crawford and a three-point play from brother Dylan Crawford.
Yet, the Eagles scored the quarter’s final 11 points to take a 21-16 advantage at the break that was made possible on a 40-foot heave from Klines at the buzzer.