The La Cañada High School varsity boys’ basketball team threw everything it could at Irvine Crean Lutheran.
Grit, key defensive stops, a historic comeback and a herculean effort from their senior leaders were just enough to give the visiting Spartans a 77-74 double-overtime victory over the Saints in a thrilling CIF Southern Section Division 2A semifinal last Saturday.
No. 3-seeded La Cañada (27-5 overall record) overcame a 15-point, third-quarter deficit to reach its fifth CIF-SS championship game in the program’s history. The Spartans’ last CIF-SS final was a 50-47 upset victory over Los Angeles Price in 2011.
“They kept fighting back,” said Tom Hofman, who has guided the program to two CIF-SS titles since taking over as LCHS head coach in the 1986-87 season. “They didn’t give up. In the second overtime, they didn’t give up and kept playing. I’m real proud of their effort. Ryan Graves was phenomenal, but the entire team did a great job.”
With a 28-24 lead through the first two quarters, the home squad came out of the halftime break on fire, draining nearly every shot in the quarter. Crean Lutheran went on a 10-2 run late in the quarter to build a 51-36 lead. Drew Yezbak hit a short jumper and followed that with a big 3-pointer during the run to give the Saints a 15-point lead with 1:52 remaining in the third.
“Keep playing” is what Hofman told his players when they trailed by double digits. “We had to defend. We had to make some stops. [The Saints] came out so hot in the second half and we just had to tighten up on defense a little bit. And then Graves got hot and took unbelievable shots. He’s one of the all-time great players here.”
Graves cemented his status as one of the best players in La Cañada’s history with a game-high 26 points, including eight 3-pointers. The senior forward was instrumental to the Spartans’ comeback with four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. Trailing 57-46 with 6:07 remaining in regulation, LCHS saw Graves drill three consecutive shots from beyond the arc and cut the deficit to two points.
Crean Lutheran (18-14 overall) responded with two big shots, including a 3-pointer by Yezbak, to give the home squad a seven-point cushion with 4:05 remaining, but Graves gave his team hope when he drained another shot from beyond the arc to make it a four-point game, 62-58, with 2:30 left.
“When he gets in that mode, you just can’t guard him,” said LCHS senior Noah Ford, who netted 12 points. “I just knew we were going to win.”
The Spartans buckled down and Crean Lutheran struggled to extend its lead. Time was not on La Cañada’s side, but it managed to tie the game with what Hofman called “one of the biggest shots in school history.”
Kyle Brown had the ball at the wing and was double teamed. He passed to a wide-open Ford, who had not played most of the season because of a broken wrist. The forward planted his feet, fired a 3-pointer from the corner and was fouled. His shot went in, and he drilled a clutch free throw to tie the game, 62-62, with 11.2 seconds remaining. Jon Scherer attempted a shot for the Saints but fell short, sending the game into overtime.
“Kyle Brown got me wide open, and all I had to do was shoot it,” Ford said. “Thank God it went in.”
La Cañada took its first lead of the game when Zack Feehan made a free throw to put his squad ahead, 63-62. The Spartans led by as many as six points in overtime, but senior guard Aiden Gilbert scored five of his 11 points in the period to keep Crean Lutheran in the game. He buried two free throws with 20.7 seconds remaining, tying the score, 70-70. Graves attempted a shot from outside that fell off the mark, sending the game into a second overtime.
The Spartan defense tightened in the final four minutes, limiting the Saints to one field goal in the second overtime.
Graves came through again with a 3-pointer with 1:33 remaining, giving his squad a 75-72 lead.
Chris Swardstrom made two free throws to get Crean Lutheran within one point with 1:19 left, and the Saints then fouled Feehan, forcing him to shoot one and one from the free-throw line. The senior post player made both shots to give the Spartans a 77-74 lead with 27.4 seconds remaining.
“That was huge,” Hofman said of Feehan, who recently broke the LCHS single-season rebounding record. “But he’s been huge all year with his rebounding. Today, it was his points.”
The Saints missed two shots and were forced to foul Feehan with 11.2 seconds remaining. The Spartan missed the free throw, giving the home team an opportunity to tie.
The ball went to guard Jon Scherer, who attempted a 3-pointer but was blocked by Graves. The ball came loose and time expired, sending La Cañada fans into a frenzy.
“This is the craziest game I’ve been in,” Graves said. “It was such an awesome atmosphere. This is something I’ve looked for my whole life, and somehow I made it to the finals. It’s an honor. I couldn’t do that by myself. Every one of these guys worked hard in practice every day. I appreciate them working every day.”
Hofman, who will be coaching in a CIF-SS title game for the fourth time in his 33-year career at LCHS, certainly appreciates the effort from Graves and the rest of the group.
“I Like that we made some shots,” he said. “We weren’t hitting them early. I liked when they attacked the zone a little better. What I really liked is they didn’t give up. They just kept playing. I like their character and their heart. They’ve had it all year.”
Feehan finished with 17 points and 21 rebounds, and Brown added 12 points. Ryan Grande netted 10 points and Jake George recorded a team-high five assists.
Yezbak led Crean Lutheran with 21 points and Swardstrom chipped in 18 points.
La Cañada 50
The Spartans cruised past host Walnut, 50-37, in the CIF-SS Division 2A quarterfinals last Thursday.
La Cañada built a 20-9 lead after one quarter and never looked back. The Spartans buckled down on defense and limited the home squad to 30% shooting from the field.
Graves led the charge with 13 points and 10 rebounds, and Brown added 12 points, nine rebounds and three assists. George chipped in 11 points and three assists, Feehan finished with eight points, 10 rebounds and three assists, and Grande contributed six points.