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St. Francis basketball seeking first CIF title

Basketball: Golden Knights to face Oak Park in CIF Southern Section Division III-A championship at Azusa Pacific University.

March 05, 2014|By Charles Rich, charles.rich@latimes.com
  • St. Francis' Noah Willerford drives the lane against La Cañada's Grant Arthur in a CIF SS Division III-A semifinal boys' basketball game played at Maranatha High School in Pasadena on Friday, February 28, 2014. St. Francis won the game to move on to the championship game.
St. Francis' Noah Willerford drives the lane against… (Tim Berger / Glendale…)

A trip to the CIF Southern Section Division III-A championship contest appeared to be anything but a slam dunk for the St. Francis High basketball team just a couple of weeks ago.

After stumbling through the second half of Mission League, St. Francis earned the second seed in the division’s playoff bracket before being taken to overtime by unseeded Yucca Valley in the first round. Since the opening-round scare, the Golden Knights appear to be the squad that excelled throughout December and the first part of January.

It’s paved the way for St. Francis to advance to the CIF championship contest for the first time in the program’s history.

Now, St. Francis (19-11) will look to make its final push when it meets fourth-seeded Oak Park (20-10) in the division title contest at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Azusa Pacific University’s Felix Event Center.

“We had our share of struggles toward the end of league, but we have turned things around and are excited about playing for a championship,” said Golden Knights co-Coach Ray O’Brien, who splits the St. Francis coaching responsibilities with Jeff Stephens. “I think after the Yucca Valley game, we got back to doing a better job of defense and rebounding and we started to get to the rim a lot more.

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“It’s about knowing your roles and accepting them.”

St. Francis, which earned an at-large berth after finishing tied for fifth in league with Harvard-Westlake, advanced to the championship game with a 56-53 semifinal victory against neighbor and third-seeded La Cañada on Friday at Maranatha High. Revamped Oak Park, which finished tied for second with Bishop Diego in the Tri-Valley League after losing all five starters from last season’s team, notched a 64-57 home semifinal victory against top-seeded Santa Barbara. Oak Park, also seeking its first CIF crown, eliminated St. Francis in the quarterfinals last season with a convincing 64-42 home win.

The Golden Knights and Eagles, who previously reached title games in 2005 and 2011, have learned plenty since their last matchup.

“We found out a lot about them after we played them last year,” O’Brien said. “It’s a different cast of players that they now have, but they have a tradition of fielding strong teams and being fundamentally sound.

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