BURBANK — If the St. Francis High boys' basketball team was going to remain unbeaten on the season and reach the championship game of the 24th annual Paul Sutton Tipoff Classic, it would have to do so without its starting guards over the final three and a half minutes of Friday night's semifinal.
When Golden Knights coaches Ray O’Brien and Jeff Stephens went to their bench, they didn’t come up empty, as junior guard Philip Little came up big for St. Francis with six points and three steals in the fourth to help clinch a 61-55 win over Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.
Kyle Leufroy made 15 of 16 free throws to finish with 21 points and eight rebounds to lead St. Francis, which also got 12 points from Markar Aghakanian and 10 from Noah Willerford and will meet Salesian in the championship at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
“The two guards were out, so I really did have to step up,” said Little, whose final steal with 10.3 seconds left and a four-point St. Francis lead iced the game. “I just thought what I needed to do for the team and defense is a main goal of mine. I think I just stuck to that. Scoring wasn’t really a main focus, but it came with hustle, so I felt good about it.”
St. Francis (3-0) had its biggest lead of the game, 50-44, with just over five minutes to play, but then LACES power forward Robert Dickerson (21 points) completed a three-point play on a wild spin move to halve the lead and guards Evan Crawford (six points, five rebounds) and Michael Allen both fouled out on the Knights’ next possession. Allen was also hit with a technical foul on his way out which led to two free throws and ultimately a five-point possession when Benjamin Simpson sank a three-pointer to put the Unicorns up, 52-50, with 3:35 left.
“We’re not obviously happy about the fact that we got two charges in a row followed by a technical when I think we had a four- or five-point lead,” O’Brien said. “We know this is a young team and we’re going to make some mistakes, but the effort level is fantastic. There’s enough talent there to get them through and they’re just going to have to make mistakes and learn from it.”
By the 2:09 mark, the Golden Knights had battled back to take a 54-52 lead on a pair of Leufroy foul shots and 40 seconds later Willerford made a layup to capitalize on a Jordan Lynch steal and put St. Francis up by four. With 50.3 seconds remaining, St. Francis saw its grip on the game weaken a bit when Simpson was fouled behind the three-point line and made all three free throws to pull within 56-55. But Willerford made a free throw the next trip down and after a Unicorns travel, Aghakanian made two more for a 59-55 lead with 21 seconds left.
“We definitely didn’t want to lose today,” Little said. “We’ve been working hard all preseason and we weren’t going to let this one away easy.”
It wasn’t just the last few minutes that were close, as there were five lead changes over the last three minutes of the first quarter and several more down the stretch of the second that saw LACES take a 28-27 lead into the break just after Crawford sank a floater to give St. Francis its first lead of the quarter.
St. Francis made its next move late in the third, where Leufroy nailed a three with 1:00 left to tie it at 40 before Little scored on a fast break to make it 44-40 Golden Knights heading to the fourth.
“There were some good and some bad, which is the way that we knew it would be,” O’Brien said. “The good news is when we had guys foul out of the game and we had to put other guys in — and I’ve said all along we have 10 guys — it made a big difference.
“What we’re all about is anybody stepping up when the opportunity arises.”