The Cuesta College men’s basketball has to be glad it won’t see Elijah Brown again during the regular season.
Ventura’s high-scoring sophomore guard poured in 20 of his game-high 34 points in the second half, helping the Pirates defeat the first-place Cougars 82-76 in a key Western State Conference matchup Saturday night at Cuesta Gym.
The loss ended Cuesta’s six-game winning streak to start the conference season and marked the Cougars’ first setback on their home court since Nov. 8. It was one of few missteps Cuesta has taken in building a 19-7 overall record and it remains first in the North Division at 6-1.
In winning their fifth straight game, Ventura (15-8) kept pace with Moorpark (16-7) to stay tied for second in the conference standings.
“We don’t need to panic,” head coach Rusty Blair said. “But when you lose a home game against a team you can just eliminate from all consideration, and you come out soft and you come out with no energy, that’s something I can’t accept.”
How it happened:
Entering Saturday’s contest, Brown was averaging 20.9 points per game, the seventh-highest total in the state.
The 6-foot-2, 187-pound sophomore went 11 of 19 from the field and made 10 of his 14 attempts at the free-throw line.
Brown has scored at least 20 points 12 times this season and has three 30-point performances to his credit. When Cuesta went to Ventura for the Western State Conference opener back on Jan. 6, Brown scored a game-high 25 points in a 67-65 loss decided in the final seconds.
The Pirates relied on Brown to either create his own offense in the half court or penetrate the defense and kick out to an open shooter. He executed both well, and the Cougars always seemed to be a step slow with their defensive rotations.
“It’s one-on-five, dribble around. It’s not my style,” Blair said. “But if that’s the style they’re going to run and actually beat you with it, then you’ve got to give them all the power.”
Finding the open man:
With Cuesta’s defensive attention on Brown — Blair said the Cougars used four different schemes to slow him down — Ventura’s perimeter shooters got several open opportunities.
As a team, the Pirates went 12 of 24 from behind the 3-point line, making six 3-pointers in each half. They also shot 49.1 percent from the field (26 of 53) and made 18 of their 24 attempts at the free-throw line.
Jacob Alonzo and Jamal Lewis went a combined 7 of 11 from beyond the arc.
“The other guys were knocking down shots,” Blair said, “because our guys were too slow getting out because they weren’t ready.”
By comparison, the Cougars turned in a 2-for-11 shooting performance from behind the 3-point line and still managed to shoot over 54 percent from the field (32 of 59).
Who stood out:
Sophomore center Roberto Mantovani continued to lead Cuesta offensively. He scored 17 of his team-high 24 points in the first half, grabbed nine rebounds and recorded three assists.
But when the Cougars needed quick offense down the stretch to climb back from a double-digit deficit, they looked to point guard Karem Özel. The Turkish freshman scored 10 of Cuesta’s final 12 points, including eight straight to pull the Cougars within 75-70, but they would get no closer.
Özel finished the game with 20 points, four rebounds and four assists in 36 minutes. Sophomore forward Rafail Eleftheriou chipped in 14 points on 6-for-11 shooting and pulled down nine rebounds.
Cuesta will be back on the road when it travels south to play LA Pierce at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The Cougars got the better of LA Pierce (9-14, 2-4) when the two teams met Jan. 9, rallying for a 75-70 victory in overtime.
Next Saturday, Cuesta will host last-place Santa Barbara (6-15, 1-6) at 7 p.m. inside Cuesta Gym.
“Right now, we’re going to find out what this team is made of,” Blair said.