In the first eight minutes of the Cuesta College men’s basketball team’s Western State Conference opener against L.A. Pierce, it was easy to see why the Cougars had established themselves as the team to beat in the North Division.
Roger Guardia had two 3-pointers and a highlight-reel block off the backboard, Christian Koutras lobbed a no-look assist over his shoulder to Seth Koenig, and Cuesta was out to a 14-point lead.
But that advantage was whittled in half by the break, and L.A. Pierce was able to pull to within two several times in the second half.
Just as the final result — a 79-65 Cougars win — was a familiar outcome for Cuesta (15-4, 1-0 WSC), so was the blown lead.
“We’re trying to be better and better each game we’ve played, and that’s something that’s bugged us all season, Koenig said. “ … All of a sudden that gives a team confidence that they can play with us.
“We have to have the killer instinct to say, let’s go, let’s keep doing what we were doing in the beginning and run them out of the gym.”
That killer instinct did not materialize at Cuesta on Wednesday, even as the Cougars pulled away by sinking free throws down the stretch, but there were plenty of positives to reflect on.
Koenig had a game-high 27 points, eight rebounds and four steals to along with 12-for-16 shooting from the field. The 6-foot-3 post used his speed and quickness to get open looks around the basket against the bigger Brahmas front court.
“The difference was that we were more passionate in the second half,” Guardia said, “and we tried to find the hot guy on the team. For example, Seth, he did a great job.”
Guardia had 25 points and six rebounds to go with three steals and three assists. The swingman from Spain was 11 for 12 from the free-throw line.
Cuesta big man Xavier Mylleville had just five points but grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds and swatted away a game-high five blocks.
Koutras had a game-high four assists but had a frustrating game.
He was one whistle away from fouling out in 26 minutes and got tagged with a technical foul that gave Pierce a chance to tie the score in the second half. Trailing by four at the time, the Brahmas made just two of four straight free throws to keep the lead.
Part of the problem for Koutras, the conference assist leader, was an injured groin that took him out of the game down the stretch.
Cuesta head coach Rusty Blair said Koutras has been playing with the injury for a couple weeks, and it has hurt his play.
Backup point guard Jonathan Henry fought through illness to play 14 minutes in a reserve role and scored five points while running the team in the deciding moments.
Henry’s contributions have increased as Koutras has dealt with injury, but he and sharp-shooting wing Henok Yigzaw are the only players who got significant minutes off the bench.
That lack of depth, Blair said, is what’s contributed to Cuesta’s propensity for blowing leads. The Cougars’ lulls always seem to come around the same time in each game.
“I think that has a lot to do with having a short bench,” Blair said. “Guys are getting tired around that point, a sub comes in or the guy who gets tired is one step slow. So that’s something that’s bothered us the entire year.”
Cuesta still had the WSC North Division’s best record entering league play — Moorpark is next with an 8-6 nonconference record — but the Cougars aren’t getting too comfortable with rival Ventura visiting on Saturday.
Even though Ventura was just 3-10 in nonconference play, the Pirates have been a traditionally tough opponent.
“It’s always a big game for Ventura,” Koenig said. “It doesn’t matter what anyone’s record is now. They think they can beat us, we think we can beat them. They think they can win league, we think we can win league.”
L.A. Pierce 77, Cuesta 65
The Cougars (3-11, 0-1 WSC) squandered a 12-point halftime lead and 22 points from Raleigh O’Brien by giving up 50 points in the second half.
Tess Williams led Pierce with 28 points, and teammate Candyse Farmer added 26 and a game-high seven steals. They were the only Brahma Bulls in double figures.
Kathy Jones had 12 points and four assists, and Maria Woodruff had nine points for the Cougars, who also shot 9 for 19 from 3-point range as a team.
O’Brien was 4 of 6 from beyond the arc and had a team-high three steals.