Through extreme ups and a few downs, one thing was certain about the Cuesta College women’s basketball team this season.
The Cougars had to be ready to adjust to anything, and that held true in their playoff game Friday night.
From a surprising 15-2 record and starting the year as one of the hottest teams in the state to watching its second-leading scorer walk away in the middle of the season to having its point guard fall ill and miss the final few weeks, Cuesta endured it all to host its first playoff game since 2006.
And despite an emotion-fueled rally to keep the season going, the reserves were finally depleted in a 61-58 loss to visiting Orange Coast in the first round of the CCCAA Regional Playoffs.
“We used every timeout; we exerted every energy we had,” Cougars head coach Ron Barba said. “It’s a bitter pill to swallow to lose on your home floor.”
Despite cutting a 13-point deficit to one in the closing minutes, Cuesta (22-7), the No. 8 seed, could never hit the shot to put itself back ahead of the No. 9 Pirates (18-10).
Third-year sophomore Katie Rodriguez slashed to the hoop for a layup that made it 59-58 with 37.2 seconds left, and freshman Morro Bay product Jerrica Crosby had an open 3-pointer from the top of the key on the final play, but the season ended nonetheless.
“I knew it was off toward the right,” said Crosby, who tied for the team high with 12 points on 5 of 10 from the field and led the way with seven rebounds. “I wish I would have taken that one second, because I looked at the clock and saw one second left when it hit the rim. … It was kind of rushed really.”
Caitlin Bunting sealed it for Orange Coast. The sophomore guard was 0 for 6 from the field, 0 for 5 from 3-point range and 0 for 1 from the free-throw line before hitting two free throws with 9.4 seconds left to get the three-point cushion.
Jasmine Matar had a game-high 18 points for the Pirates, who also got 14 from Kelsey Dalton and 13 from Dayanara Armenta.
Ashley Gamber came off the bench to score 12 and grab six rebounds for Cuesta. Rodriguez, a Righetti High product, scored 11.
The Cougars held a slight lead for most of the first half but fell into an offensive slump in the minutes leading into the break, and it continued into the second.
Cuesta scored just two baskets in the final 7:34 of the first half, and Orange Coast grabbed a 42-29 lead within the first five minutes of the second.
“We were just looking for open shooters,” Rodriguez said, “passing the ball, getting to the basket, trying to draw the foul, playing like a team.”
Amazingly, the Cougars got back into the game shooting 2 for 20 as a team on 3-pointers, and they did it with leading scorer Miriam Zabinski playing the role of distributor rather than scorer.
A sophomore, Zabinski was fourth in the Western State Conference North Division with 18.9 points per game this season. On Friday, Zabinski was held to eight points and did not have a field goal in the second half.
Orange Coast tried to deny Zabinski at all costs, kept her out of her favorite spots, and eventually, Barba adopted the plan himself to free up open shots for Crosby and others.
Plus, Cuesta began to pressure full court on defense and came away with 11 steals to help the effort.
With the frenetic energy on defense, the rowdy crowd’s ire against any ruling favoring the Pirates took on a life of its own as intensity rose in the gym.
Cuesta seemed to turn the emotion into momentum but never retook the lead.
“We just knew we had to play defense, get stops,” Crosby said. “That’s what we’ve been focused on all season. We kind of wish we could have played harder defense. We should have had a couple more stops, and we probably would have won.
“At the beginning of the season, no one expected anything from us. We were the underdogs, so, it was great to see us all come together. We all got really close and played better than everyone expected. That’s all we can really ask for.”