Long range shooting was Alexander Engel’s niche on the Cuesta men’s basketball team.
A 5-foot-10 college point guard has to bring something extra to the table.
Only, the former Morro Bay High standout — now in his sophomore season with the Cougars — had not been living up to that billing this season, sinking just 29.9 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-point range in limited minutes.
But with injuries hampering the first-place team’s top two point guards, Cuesta coach Rusty Blair must turn to Engel to help keep things afloat and keep the Cougars (19-5, 5-1 Western State Conference) on track to repeat as North Division champions.
If Engel’s confidence was low, it got a huge boost Wednesday night as Cuesta topped Santa Barbara City College 80-66 at home to remain in contention for a title that could be the team’s only ticket to the playoffs.
In his first collegiate start, Engel shot 50 percent from the field, including 3 for 6 on 3-pointers to score a career-high 11 points in 19 minutes, the most he’s ever played.
“When I was in warm-ups, I was a little nervous, shot was a little off,” Engel said, “but once I got in the game, I got in the flow. I was a little more confident.”
Cuesta’s Seth Koenig had a game-high 20 points and 10 rebounds, Roger Guardia scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds and center Xavier Mylleville had a balanced game with 12 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
The Cougars jumped out to an early 20-point lead in the first half before letting that shrink to seven in the second.
But that’s as close as Santa Barbara (5-15, 1-5 WSC), which lost leading scorer and first-team all-conference guard David Lane to injury early on, would get.
A steal and reverse dunk by Guardia with 6:21 left put Cuesta up 67-52 and essentially put the game out of reach. The Cougars travel to Los Angeles Pierce on Saturday in a showdown of teams tied atop the standings with just one conference loss apiece.
Engel had been averaging just over eight minutes per game coming in and hadn’t gotten off the bench in four of the team’s games.
He was behind sophomore starter Christian Koutras and freshman backup Jonathan Henry on the depth chart at point guard, not really knowing when his chances were going to come.
“It’s hard to come off the bench,” Engel said. “Sometimes your minutes are up. Sometimes your minutes are down.”Koutras has been hurt all season, playing through a groin pull for the past couple months and a foot arch injury that crept up in the past two weeks. Henry has missed nearly all of the past two games with an injury of his own and was unavailable with his foot in a boot Wednesday.
So Engel knew he would be getting the start against Santa Barbara, and the pressure was on him not just to shoot but to get the team into its offense as well, something he has been improving on.
“He’s been making a lot of progress from when I first saw him,” said Koutras, who had five assists in 23 minutes but had limited mobility. “He was basically just a shooter when I first saw him, but now his passing game has become a lot better and his knowledge of the game, too.”
At times Wednesday, Engel and Koutras were on the floor together, but Koutras was nowhere near his normal self. Before he started missing big chunks of games, he was leading the conference in assists with a strong drive-and- dish mentality.
Now, Koutras said, he has to think twice before going to a spin move or a hard direct drive. He does not want to further aggravate his injuries.
“It’s been tough,” Koutras said. “I’m a penetrating point guard, and it makes you two steps slower. I’ve been struggling a lot. And you can tell by my game.
“Also, you’re not able to practice the way you usually practice. Everything feels rusty.”
Santa Barbara 80, Cuesta 57
The Cougars put three players in double figures, including Valerie Gee, who led the team with 18 points.
Kayla Cribbs added 12 points and nine rebounds for Cuesta (4-15, 1-5 Western State Conference) while Lauren Maurer scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds.
Santa Barbara forced 31 turnovers while committing just 17 of their own.
Santa Barbara’s Francesca DeAngelis led all scorers with 31 points.
Tribune staff contributed to this report.