MONROVIA — In a battle of long-distance shooting versus slashing penetration, perhaps it was free throws that played the biggest difference for the St. Francis High boys’ basketball team.
The Golden Knights scored the final six points of Monday evening’s neighborhood and CIF Southern Section Division III-A rivalry game in defeating La Cañada, 58-51, in the San Gabriel Valley Classic third-place contest at Monrovia High.
“It’s very difficult to play against a team like La Cañada under normal circumstances. When you have just 30 minutes to instruct your team that four of the five guys on the floor can hit a three-point shot, that’s a little different,” Golden Knights co-Coach Ray O’Brien said. “You have to have a hand in their face and realize they’re not going to go inside all that often. You have be aware of the three-point shot.”
The Spartans (8-4), ranked seventh in Division III-A, were deadly in hitting on 14 of 32 (44%) attempts from behind the arc.
Yet, La Cañada’s final basket came on 14-foot jumper from Dan Jun, who was named to the all-tournament team after scoring 13 points and three assists, created off an assist from Jacob Brown (tied Jun for team lead with 13 points) with 3:19 remaining that brought the Spartans within 52-51.
While St. Francis (11-3), ranked third in Division III-A, did not answer offensively on its next possession, the Golden Knights defense came up with the lone turnover for either side in the quarter when senior guard Evan Crawford (15 points) stole possession at the Spartans’ three-point line and raced the other way for a layup that put the home team ahead, 54-51, with 2:39 remaining.
“We tried to guard them by attacking the driver and making sure they wouldn’t get kick-outs for three-pointers,” said Golden Knights forward Noah Willerford, who finished with nine points. “They’re a very good shooting team and they had some streaks today that kept them in the game.”
Over the next two minutes, both squads attempted to take control by going to their bread and butter, as La Cañada missed tying on consecutive three-point attempts while St. Francis missed adding to its lead on consecutive surges into the paint.
A missed jumper from St. Francis’ Kyle Leufroy (who was named to the all-tournament team after finishing with a game-high 18 points and eight rebounds) with 53 seconds remaining was rebounded by La Cañada’s Kuko Kurdoghlian (seven points and three steals), who called timeout after bringing the ball across half-court with 32.9 seconds remaining.
Despite a relatively strong three-point shooting day from the Spartans, La Cañada missed another triple try to tie the game and was forced to foul.
This pattern happened twice over the next two sequences and St. Francis made the Spartans pay by hitting on four straight free throw attempts in extending the lead to 58-51 with 3.5 seconds remaining.
For the contest, the Golden Knights finished 13 for 16 from the free-throw line while the Spartans were two for two.
“I actually thought we played well for all but the last two minutes,” Spartans Coach Tom Hofman said. “It’s nice playing St. Francis and it’s something we like to do every once in a while, but I’m not sure it should be a regular thing.”
Hofman’s crew looked outmatched a few minutes before the end of the first half, as St. Francis extended a 9-5 advantage after a sluggish first quarter and eventually led by 12.
St. Francis’ lead was at 27-16 with 2:38 left in the second quarter when the Spartans closed with a flourish, going on a 14-3 run over the final 2 minutes and 23 seconds of the first half that culminated on a three-pointer from Brown with two seconds remaining, which put La Cañada ahead, 30-28, at the half.
The Golden Knights trailed by two points up until the last minute of the third quarter when a slashing layup was followed by two free throws from Leufroy that put St. Francis ahead, 43-41, after three quarters.
“We’re a three-point shooting team,” said Brown, who was three for eight on his three-point attempts. “When our shots are falling, we’re a tough team to beat. We just didn’t get those shots at the end.”