WHITTIER — Down by 11 points midway through the third quarter, prospects appeared bleak for the La Cañada High boys’ basketball team in Tuesday evening’s CIF Southern Section Division III-A quarterfinal playoff game at upset-minded Pioneer.
While it could have been argued that the Del Rio League runner-up Titans dominated the contest through the first 2 1/2 quarters, there was no disputing who owned the end of the game.
The Rio Hondo League-champion Spartans scored 26 of the contest’s final 38 points in rallying for a 57-53 win.
The victory sends third-seeded La Cañada (23-6) into the semifinals for an explosive match-up Friday at 7 p.m. at Foothill Blvd.-rival St. Francis (18-11), the divisional second seed, which punched its ticket via 55-43 win over Gladstone on Tuesday.
“It was a matter of playing good defense and getting over our nerves in the first half,” said Spartans Coach Tom Hofman, whose team lost to St. Francis, 58-51, in third-place game of the San Gabriel Valley Classic Tournament at Monrovia High on Dec. 30. “We calmed down in the second half and played much better defense against Pioneer.”
The Titans (18-11) opened with a 22-point first quarter, but scored less in every subsequent quarter, including being held to eight points in the fourth.
Perhaps the biggest shot of the contest came with 2:16 remaining when Spartans senior guard Dan Jun drained a three-pointer from straightaway that gave La Cañada the lead for good, 52-50.
“I didn’t really think, I just shot with confidence,” said Jun, who hadn’t converted a field goal heading into the fourth, but scored 11 of his 13 points in the final period. “I had the open look and I had to take it.”
While the Spartans had jumped ahead at two other junctures in the fourth, only to surrender the advantage right back, this time they weren’t overtaken.
Pioneer committed a turnover on its next possession, the fifth of the quarter, which resulted in a tripping foul of Jun with 1:26 remaining.
Jun calmly converted two free throws to give La Cañada its largest advantage of 54-50.
“I just treated those free throws like any other,” Jun said.
Pioneer then missed a three-point try each from Joshua Valdez and Jonathan Mayorga on its next two offensive possessions, which resulted in the Titans again needing to foul with 22 seconds.
Jun sank one of two free throws to put the Spartans ahead, 55-50, and virtually ice the game, notwithstanding a three from Mayorga with 6.9 seconds left, which again led to a foul of Jun.
The senior officially capped the game with two free throws with 3.4 seconds left.
“Hey, this was a team effort and we had a lot of guys stepping up,” said Spartans guard Kevin Depriest, who hit five of seven threes in scoring 15 points. “You have Dan with big shots, Grant [Arthur] was knocking down some threes and we played the way we knew we had to.”
Depriest first sent a hearty visiting section into a frenzy when he buried back-to-back three-pointers off assists from Ko Ko Kurdoghlian and Jun to give the Spartans their first lead, 46-45, with 7:11 left in the fourth.
The lead seemed unlikely only a quarter earlier.
La Cañada trailed, 22-16, after one quarter and, 35-26, at the half.
While the Spartans opened the third with a three-pointer and layup from Arthur (14 points) to pull within 35-31 with 6:18 remaining, Pioneer rallied with a spot-up 18-footer from slashing guard Courtney Ramon (game-high 16 points), which keyed a 6-0 spurt culminating with a Ramon layup with 3:31 left that gave the Titans a 42-31 lead.
From that point, La Cañada closed the quarter with a 9-3 run that ended with an impressive one-on-three layup from Kurdoghlian, who stole possession from the Titans’ three-point line and raced the other way with numbers against him and still scored.
“This is what it’s all about, just playing our game,” Jun said. “We’re ready for the next round.”