When the Cuesta College and Allan Hancock men’s basketball team’s get together, it’s expected to be a grudge match between the archrivals.
As it turned out Wednesday night in San Luis Obispo, the grudge seemed more between Cougars head coach Rusty Blair and a referee that handed him an early technical foul and doled out two more against Cougars players in addition to a separate intentional foul.
Cuesta fought back from a 20-plus-point second-half deficit to get to within 10 with 4:07 left, but Hancock was able to pull away for a 115-103 victory in a crucial Western State Conference Northern Division matchup.
Blair made no comment about the controversial officiating, but it was only after having their head coach nearly kicked out of the gym that the Cougars fell behind by double digits.
Cuesta started the game on a 6-0 run and led 8-3 at one point, but with 15:15 left in the first half, Blair wandered a couple feet onto the court to protest a non-call by saying, “Call the foul. That’s a body foul.”
That prompted a technical foul call against Blair, and two Hancock free throws gave the Bulldogs a 9-8 lead.
Hancock (16-7, 3-1 WSCN) went on an 8-2 run to lead 17-10 when three minutes later Blair had another run-in with the same official.
“You have to call it both ways,” Blair said before the official said he would eject the coach if he said one more word and warned him against speaking to any of the other two referees.
Meanwhile, Hancock used a smothering man-to-man defense to create turnovers and turn them into fast-break layups. The Bulldogs continued the run to lead the Cougars (15-10, 2-2 WSCN) 50-31 at the half.
In front of the Hawaii coaching staff, 6-foot-8 Hancock guard Demetrius Thomas scored a game-high 35 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Khufu Najee — who Bulldogs head coach Ralph Gorton said is getting interest from Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero (also in attendance) — scored 21 points.
“Demetrius is the most talented kid in the state,” Gorton said. “A lot of people feel that way. He had 42 points in a game. He’s had 20-rebound games. He’s a great talent, and he can play any position on the floor.
“If he stays academic, he has a chance to be at a high major, and with some luck, he has a chance to be an NBA prospect.”
Junior Anderson and Anthony Trepagnier scored 14 points apiece for the Bulldogs, who moved a step ahead of Cuesta in pursuit of undefeated conference frontrunner Los Angeles Pierce.
For Gorton and assistant coach Vince Conde, who each spent time as assistants for Blair at Cuesta, the win brought a little extra sweetness as the Cougars kept it hard-fought to the end.
“It’s never going to be over as long as Rusty’s a head coach and I’m a head coach,” Gorton said. “It’s always going to be competitive. That’s how it should be.
“It’s not a grudge match for me. He’s a great head coach. He’s the best part-time head coach in the state. I have a lot of respect for him. He does a lot of great things for his kids, but I want to kick his butt every time.”
Oscar Pedroso had 31 points and 10 rebounds to spearhead Cuesta’s comeback effort in the second half. Point guard Kenny Robinson added 18 points and seven assists, and 6-8 center Mohamed Ali Ben Ammar scored 14 points.
Plamen Hristov had 12 points, and Khirey Carson had 11 points off the bench.
But in the second half, Pedroso and Carson were each called for a technical foul. Robinson was hit with an intentional foul defending Thomas at the hoop.
“This is one of the most emotional games we’ve had this year,” Robinson said, “but the problem with us is we don’t show emotion until we’re down by 20. And I give Hancock credit because they came out with the most emotion, they executed better than us and they deserved to win.”
When the Cougars did cut the lead to 10 for the last time in the final minutes, Hristov missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key, and Hancock went on the clinching run.
The defeat puts Cuesta on the outside looking in for the WSCN title, two losses behind Pierce and in fourth place behind Hancock and Ventura.
The Cougars followed a similar script when they fell behind by double digits against Pierce last week before another futile comeback effort. Now, Blair is vowing to toughen up to avoid falling behind in the first place.
“I have to change my entire coaching and practice style,” Blair said. “I’ve got to get hard, tough. You saw how soft we came out in the first half. It can’t happen anymore.
“We’re at the crossroads for the program for this year, and I’m serious.”