St. Francis upsets No. 6 Crespi, 66-52

LA CANADA FLINTRIDGE – Crespi is finding out how important Michael Milligan Jr. is to its basketball team.

St. Francis found an offensive weapon in Tei Vanderford that might prove valuable as the season unfolds.

Vanderford scored a career-high 24 points to lead St. Francis to a 66-52 win over Crespi, the No. 6 team in the ESPN Los Angeles basketball rankings, at St. Francis High School on Wednesday night.

“He’s a baseball player first. He did not play varsity basketball last year,” St. Francis co-coach Ray O’Brien said. “He’s just a great athlete that’s great under pressure. He’s gotten better every game. He’s learned our system.”

It was the third loss in a row for Crespi, playing without Milligan, the team’s 6-feet-4 forward. He has missed the past two games with a concussion, but coach Russell White said he expects Milligan to return for Crespi’s game against Sherman Oaks Notre Dame on Friday.

When asked if playing without Milligan makes that much of a difference, White said simply, “Apparently.”

“I didn’t know he was,” White said. “The proof is in the pudding.”

Vanderford called the win over Crespi (18-4) the biggest of the season. His team never trailed and maintained a double-digit lead through most of the fourth quarter. It was only the second Mission League win for St. Francis (9-13) and it snapped a three-game losing streak.

“Tonight Tei Vanderford stepped up in such a major way, on the boards and scoring, he took a little bit of pressure off the other two stars,” O’Brien said.

Emerson Castaneda and Zack Gardea have been the top two scorers for St. Francis. They both finished in double figures in scoring, but Vanderford took over the offense right out of the gate.

St. Francis took a 6-0 lead in the first quarter and pushed it to 11-2 midway through the opening period. The Golden Knights went up 15-5 on a basket by Vanderford, who scored nine points in the first quarter.

Crespi made a little run in the second quarter to cut the St. Francis lead to two points, 20-18, but Vanderford and Castaneda came up with some big shots before halftime. Castaneda hit a 3-pointer and Vanderford scored the last seven points for St. Francis before the end of the first half.

St. Francis went into halftime up 30-23.

“They’re relentless and you have to be ready for that kind of relentless pressure,” O’Brien said. “We slowly adjusted to handling the press. Once we were able to not to turn the ball over after the first quarter, we began to believe in ourselves and we calmed down.”

Castaneda started to heat up in the third quarter scoring seven of his 15 points. He hit another 3-pointer that put St. Francis up 44-31.

Crespi rallied late in the third quarter to cut the St. Francis lead to seven points again, 44-37.

Vanderford pushed the St. Francis lead back to 11 points in the fourth quarter. Gardea went 8-for-8 from the free-throw in the fourth quarter to ice the game. Gardea scored 18 points and had five rebounds.

Justin Rubia led Crespi in scoring with 18 points and London Perrantes scored 17.

“We got outplayed tonight in every component of the game,” White said. “They were prepared better, they played harder. They played better, they played smarter. Got to back to square one and start over again.”