Christian Koutras hasn’t moved this well in a while, and that news comes just in time for the Cuesta College men’s basketball team.
Koutras, the point guard who’s been bothered by a groin injury most of the season, scored 14 points and dished out a game-high four assists, and three more Cougars scored in double figures as Cuesta clinched the Western State Conference North Division title outright with a 77-65 win over Moorpark on Wednesday night.
“We’re a better basketball team when they have to guard him,” said Cougars forward Seth Koenig, who scored a team-high 16 points.
Koutras had seen his points per game average dip under five since he’d been limited by the injury. He’d even been forced to miss court time as backups Jonathan Henry and Alex Engel were called upon.
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But Koutras’ encouraging game, along with the return of forward Henok Yigzaw from a dislocated knee, are key for a Cuesta team that doesn’t have much proven depth going into the playoffs.
With the win, Cuesta improved to 24-5 (10-1 WSC) and 9-0 at home with only a road game at Santa Barbara City left before the start of the Southern California regional playoffs.
The Raiders (16-10, 8-4 WSC), who beat Cuesta 64-60 in Moorpark last month, needed to beat the Cougars and hope Cuesta lost its season finale to have a shot at sharing the title.
It’s the second straight conference title for the Cougars, who are vowing to avenge last season’s first-round playoff exit. If they can beat Santa Barbara on Saturday, Cuesta coach Rusty Blair figures his team will be awarded a first-round bye and a second-round home game, which the six sophomores on the team do not want to squander.
“To me, it’s a big difference between being a freshman and being a sophomore,” said Koutras, a Swedish national who was getting used to life in the United States as well as college basketball last season. “You just adjust to the basketball.”
Sophomore swingman Roger Guardia had 15 points and 14 rebounds, and sophomore forward Phillip Jimenez added 13 points. Sophomore center Xavier Mylleville had nine points and a game-high 17 rebounds.
Point guard Matt Mazarei had a game-high 22 points to lead Moorpark. The Raiders also got 13 points apiece from Kyle Olandt and Mike Meza.
Yigzaw, who missed the past two games with the knee injury, had nine points in his return.
Blair feared that Yigzaw, a quick-draw 3-point specialist and the team’s sixth man, might have seen his career end when he initially dislocated his knee and spent 45 minutes sprawled on the floor with his teeth clenching a towel as trainers failed to slip it back in at Ventura two weeks ago.
But, Blair said, Yigzaw reports no pain since emergency room doctors were able to correct the dislocation on the final try before surgery became the only option, and the Sweden native hit a fade-away 3-pointer to put Cuesta up 58-52 with 7:48 left Wednesday.
Koenig scored six of his points in the final five minutes, and as the Cougars began to pull away, Raiders coach Remy McCarthy was whistled for a technical foul for running onto the court.
Still, Blair said he puts this team in the top three that he’s coached since taking over the team in 1991.
“This team might not have the talent and depth of last season’s team,” Blair said, “but they have better camaraderie.”