SANTA CRUZ — Flailing arms. Bodies crashing in midair. The standing-room-only senior night crowd at full bore.
Santa Cruz High might have been a season removed from winning the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League championship, but the Cardinals did not forget how to celebrate it.
“I love it,” said Santa Cruz High junior forward Javier Felix. “It’s sports. It’s a great feeling.”
Santa Cruz junior forward Robert Bishop hit the game-winning shot with 26.7 seconds left and Felix made a big defensive stop on the following possession to knock off the defending league champion St. Francis High Sharks, 52-49, on Friday night.
St. Francis (18-4, 10-2) got a good look at the possible go-ahead bucket, but Chase Watkins' floater over Felix's outstretched arms missed its mark by the slightest of margins.
It was the shot they wanted.
“And that thing was about 95 percent of the way down and it came back out,” said St. Francis head coach Ed Kelly. “It was a great shot by a great player. That’s life, right?”
Watkins, a senior forward, finished with 16 points, six rebounds and two blocks, while fellow senior forward Jason Gallo added a game-high 22 points, 14 rebounds and three assists.
Gallo’s driving layup put the Sharks up 49-48 with 1:07 left, but Felix found Bishop on the following possession for the go-ahead baseline jumper.
Watkins missed, junior guard G.J. Hill made it a three-point game with a pair of free throws and St. Francis’ desperation inbounds pass skidded off Gallo’s hands out of bounds.
“We’re two great teams and they just played a little harder than us today,” Gallo said.
St. Francis beat Santa Cruz (20-4, 11-1) in their first meeting in Watsonville, but couldn’t overcome a 10-point, second-half deficit on the road in their first loss since a 49-45 slip-up against Harbor High in early January.
A league, section and state regional champion last season, St. Francis finishes second in the SCCAL.
The two teams could very well meet a third time in next week’s SCCAL tournament final at Aptos High. They’ve met in the final the last two seasons. St. Francis won last year, and Santa Cruz the year prior.
“This was the league championship,” Kelly said. “The tournament is fun and it’s nice. But if we win the tournament, I don’t look at it as co-champions with Santa Cruz. They won the league, they were 11-1 and they deserve all the credit for that.”
Bishop led Santa Cruz with 14 points, six rebounds, three steals and a pair of blocks. Felix had 12 points and 14 rebounds, seven of which came on the offensive glass, providing the Cardinals with another look at the bucket.
Santa Cruz’s defense, powered by an endless bench of athleticism, also produced several easy looks in transition by forcing St. Francis into 13 turnovers.
“They’re athletic and they’re intense,” Gallo said, “but that’s a good challenge, and I like to play against good challenges.”
St. Francis junior guard Andrew Seymour hit a 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter to put the Sharks up 16-11 heading into the second.
Bishop swished a jumper with 4:50 left in the first half to give Santa Cruz its first lead of the game, and the Cardinals held a 26-23 lead at the break.
Santa Cruz went up 37-27 on sophomore guard Dillon Danner’s 3-pointer, but St. Francis cut the lead to five heading into the final stanza.
St. Francis trailed for the majority of the fourth before exploding for a 7-0 run to take the lead on Gallo’s layup.
Their late push wasn’t enough.
“We didn’t have a great shooting night, but we kept fighting through things and figuring out a way to win,” Kelly said. “We just came up a bit short.”