Head coach Rusty Blair called the next 10 days the most important stretch of the season for the Cuesta College men’s basketball team.
Following an 87-84 victory over visiting Oxnard Wednesday night at Cuesta Gym, the Cougars improved to 17-6 overall and 4-0 in the Western State Conference.
Having won four straight games to begin conference play and nine of its last 11 overall, Cuesta is in position to make a run at a third consecutive conference championship.
“To be truthful, that team outplayed us tonight,” said Blair, who won the 450th game of his 24-year career. “So for us to come away with a three-point win and that’s now our 12th game (decided by) three points or less — I need to have a break here.”
Blair said Cuesta came out flat defensively and a hot-shooting Condors team took advantage, building a 49-46 lead by halftime. The longtime coach was clearly frustrated with the defensive effort, which has been one of the team’s strengths throughout the season.
The 49 points allowed in the first half were a season high and Oxnard made six 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes to maintain control. The Condors (7-9, 1-3 WSC) finished the game 11 of 17 from behind the 3-point line.
That wasn’t enough to overcome another standout performance from Cougars sophomore center Roberto Mantovani. The 6-foot-8, 235-pound Cyprus native scored 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting, grabbed 16 rebounds, handed out three assists and blocked two shots.
Mantovani transferred to Cuesta from Division II Benedict College in South Carolina during the offseason with aspirations of earning a Division I scholarship offer. He’s made a major push over the last month to achieve that goal, and is averaging a double-double with 14.4 points and 10.7 rebounds as a 21-game starter.
Mantovani has been even better against conference opponents, averaging 21 points and more than 17 rebounds per contest over the last four games.
“Right now, with his play over the last four weeks, we’re getting letters, we’re getting inquiries (from bigger schools),” Blair said. “He’s in there now, earliest guy in the gym, last guy to leave. Working on his extra stuff, which he never did before at the start of the season.”
Mantovani’s blend of skill and size will be difficult for most teams in the conference to defend on a nightly basis. Blair said a player with his skillset is rarely seen in the Western State Conference, and Mantovani will be at the forefront of Cuesta’s postseason push.
It starts on the road Saturday against an Allan Hancock team that is 2-3 in conference, followed by a key home game against second-place Moorpark next Wednesday.
“Right now we have a big target on our back and everybody knows they’ve got knock us off,” Blair said. “Otherwise we’re going to run away with the championship.”
Sophomore forward Rafail Eleftheriou was equally impressive during Wednesday’s victory. He scored 19 points on 10-for-12 shooting at the free-throw line, grabbed eight rebounds and tallied four assists in 33 minutes. As a team, Cuesta went 27 of 40 at the free-throw line, compared to a 9-for-11 effort from the Condors.
Freshman point guard Karem Ozel scored nine of his 14 points in the second half, and sophomore Evgeniy Moiseev contributed 11 points and nine rebounds for the Cougars.