The Cuesta College women’s basketball team was left reeling and disoriented after the abrupt departure of one of its standout players this week, and it only helped a showdown with top-ranked Ventura turn from bad to worse for the Cougars.
Cuesta’s season got off to an amazing 15-2 record in part because of the contributions of third-year sophomore guard Courtney Chadwick, who averaged 15.9 points, 2.3 steals and a team-leading 2.4 3-pointers per game.
Chadwick left the team, quit school and moved out of town this week, Cougars head coach Ron Barba said, and with just days to prepare for their Western State Conference-North Division opener without her, the No. 12 Cougars appeared lost in Wednesday’s 76-54 loss to the Pirates (16-3), who top the state rankings this week.
Coming into the game averaging 17.8 points per game, Cuesta leading scorer Miriam Zabinski was held to just five points on 2-for-12 shooting as the Cougars struggled through early foul trouble that only shined a brighter light on their reorganizing depth.
The oddest thing about Chadwick’s decision is how it left the team wanting for an explanation.
“I talked to her,” Zabinski said. “She didn’t say anything else to the rest of the team. We didn’t really get a goodbye or a really good reason.
“It’s very bizarre, and it’s really hard for me to swallow. It just upsets me because it’s not something I would ever do.”
After redshirting her first year on campus, Chadwick ends her career No. 5 on Cuesta’s all-time career scoring list with 709 points. Her 14.2 points per game are on pace to become the program-leading scoring average among two-year players. Kelly Blair averaged more than 23 points in her lone season with the Cougars in 2009 to set the single-season mark.
Chadwick wasn’t the only disruption to this week’s practice. Starting point guard Melissa Lemus was in and out of the hospital with a food allergy and rejoined the team just in time for the game.
The freshman came off the bench to score 10 points but had nine turnovers in 22 minutes. Adrianna Vega scored a game-high 20 points, including five 3-pointers for Ventura, which also got 16 points from Cynthia Hernandez and 15 points and eight rebounds by Adrianne Sloboh.
Missing Chadwick “showed,” Barba said, “but I’m not going to pin my season on one kid, and if they really wanted to leave and go somewhere, I can’t change their mind with it, nor would I want to. It means that their mind isn’t here on the court. Might as well give it to a kid that wants to be here.”
San Luis Obispo High product Morgan Liebscher, a freshman, made her first collegiate start in place of Chadwick.
Liebscher poured in a team-high 18 points and went 6-for-12 on 3-pointers, and in her first start since missing all of last season with a knee injury, sophomore guard Katie Rodriguez scored 13 points and had four assists.
Cuesta will likely need the duo to continue to step up to fill the void for the remainder of the season, and the hope is that momentum built in a run that cut Ventura’s lead from 30 to 20 late in the game carries over to a rivalry game at Allan Hancock on Saturday.
“Making those shots got my confidence up,” said Liebscher, who also played at Mission Prep during her high school career. “Now that I know I can make my shot, I’ll be more confident as a shooter and start shooting more.”
But Liebscher’s hot hand was slowed by two fouls in the first few trips down the court. Her former Royals teammate Kaylee Williams also picked up two quick fouls as both went to the bench fewer than four minutes into the game.
Liebscher picked up a third foul and totaled just four minutes on the floor in the first half. She hit all six of her 3s after the break.
That helped allow Ventura to take a 38-18 at the half, and the Cougars felt they should have played better despite losing Chadwick’s production.
“We didn’t show up,” Zabinski said. “We didn’t make our shots, we didn’t knock down our open shots. We had opportunities.
“We just need to figure out our positions, start practicing harder than we have been and really make up for all her shots. She took about 20 shots per game, so we all need to start putting them up and hitting our shots and stepping up for her.”
Cuesta 78, Ventura 70
Forward Kyle Geer scored 22 of his game-high 24 points in the second half for the No. 20 Cougars (12-7), who erased a 12-point halftime deficit in their WSCN opener against the Pirates (7-10).
Alex Igual had 16 points, Alejandro Jorda scored 12, and Brett Hartshorne added 11 for Cuesta.
Rodney Bryant had 17, and Jalen Young scored 16 to lead Ventura, which looked like it would run away with things in the first half.
Geer and Igual each grabbed a game-high four steals, and their defense was one key to holding Ventura to 10 fewer second-half points than the Pirates scored in the first as the Cougars went on a 50-30 run in the final 20 minutes.
Geer appears finally healthy after spraining his ankle last month.
“This has been three weeks,” Cuesta head coach Rusty Blair said. “Now, I think he’s regained his confidence with that.
“Another strong key was tremendous defense by Alex Igual on their point guard. What won it for us was going straight up man-to-man.
“Ventura came out flat. I think they thought the game was over at the start of the second half.”