It was hard for Matt Faber to believe it was all happening as the seconds ticked off the clock.
The forward for the La Cañada High boys' basketball team had just brought down the biggest rebound of his life — off a potential game-tying shot with 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the CIF Southern Section Division III-AA game against Price High at the Anaheim Convention Center.
The ball bounced off the rim right to Faber, who looked upcourt and saw his teammate, Dario CiVon, standing all alone on the other side of the court. Faber hit him with an outlet pass with about 10 seconds left, ensuring the Spartans would pull off the improbable 50-47 win against Price — the No. 1 seed in the division.
“That moment, it's like a dream,” Faber said. “I didn't believe we had won until I saw the seconds tick off the clock…That was a great moment.”
Visions of Kobe Bryant in last year's NBA Finals, chucking the ball up in the air and being mobbed by his fellow Lakers, danced through CiVon's head as he ran with the ball, wondering what to do with it as those final seconds melted away.
“That's what I was thinking,” CiVon said. “I looked at the clock and it was just like slow motion. It was just a surreal moment to be that open, no one around with the game about to end.”
CiVon earned enjoyment of that moment a few minutes earlier, hitting both of his free throws to push La Cañada's lead to three with 12 seconds left — forcing Price to shoot a low-percentage, desperation three-pointer at the buzzer.
“I know I'm a good free-throw shooter, but I haven't been shooting them good all year,” CiVon said. “To be honest, no one would have been shocked if I would have missed one or both of them. With that expectation, it was almost like, 'Let's show them I can make these.’ It was almost like a challenge.”
Price (22-7) confronted La Cañada (28-3) with plenty of challenges coming into the game, but the Spartans assumed the underdog role for the third game in a row. That was just fine by La Cañada Coach Tom Hofman.
“The underdog role isn't a bad role, it relaxes you, but they are never underdogs because I know the talent we have on this team,” Hofman said. “This is a really close group that has always played at the highest level, so they may have surprised some people but not me.”
The Knights had two top college prospects headed to Division I NCAA universities. Norvel Pelle, a five-star recruit headed to St. John's, stands at 6 feet 10 — five inches taller than any Spartan starter. Booker, a three-star player on his way to University of Colorado, lined up at shooting guard for the Knights.
“It was definitely like a David-versus-Goliath type of thing,” said Mason Holle, who guarded Booker for most of the game, holding him to just six points. “But with this one I just felt that something special was going to happen. I honestly wasn't worried about playing any of these guys at all.”
Worries must have started creeping into the mind of the Knights when they saw La Cañada jump out to a 21-9 lead in the first quarter, behind five-of-nine shooting from three-point range.
“There's no question that was a great start for us and it helped us relax,” said Hofman, calling it the best shooting start he's ever seen from one of his teams.
Price answered right back, turning the contest into a transition game like Price’s Coach Michael Lynch wanted all night, cutting the deficit down to 28-23 at the end of the first half.
La Cañada never relinquished its early lead, but came dangerously close in the crunch time when the Knights tied the game at 46 with two minutes left. Price had done so by cutting an eight-point deficit in a matter of three-and-a-half minutes. There wasn't much panic on the Spartan's bench, though.
“With this season, it seems to be pretty normal,” Hofman said. “They like to make it a little bit harder on myself but we've got it done in the last few games. They seem to have a will to win in that last minute in a half. A lot of teams I've seen and coached, they would've folded when they lost that big lead and lost by 15 or 20 points.”
Sean Mintie broke the 9-1 Price run for La Cañada with 1:42 left on an easy lay-up thanks to an assist from Mike McGlashan.
Just when it looked like La Cañada was in control, disaster struck. Riley Moore committed a turnover with 17 seconds left and the Spartans were left clinging to 48-47 lead.
Price had a man advantage charging to their basket, but Moore hustled back, holding Booker to a contested layup. It went off the rim and out. Skylar Spencer rebounded the miss for the Knights and went up for a dunk, but the ball popped out and found its way into CiVon's hands. He was fouled and sent to the line, where he made both free throws, giving the Spartans a three-point cushion that would hold up for the next 12 seconds.
All three of La Cañada's offensive threats played well in the game. McGlashan and Faber each finished the game with 14 points. Faber added 10 rebounds for a double-double and CiVon had 13 points.
Defense was the difference in the end, Lynch said. His team couldn't run or get easy buckets like they wanted because of the Spartan’s double teams and slow pace.
“One style is going to win out over the other, and tonight La Cañada's style obviously beat us,” he said.
The Knights were clearly frustrated all night. Pelle finished the game with four points on zero-of-five shooting from the field and Booker admitted to being taken out of his game by Holle’s physical defense.
“We told these guys the very first day, offense is going to be inconsistent, there'll be good days and bad days,” Hofman said. “Defense should never be inconsistent; it comes from the heart, effort and team play, and that's what they did the whole playoffs.”